On Your Plate

6 Steps to Shrink Your Carbon FOODprint

Learn how food production, consumption and waste take a toll on the environment, how they affect your carbon FOODprint, and what can be done about it.

by Planet A Team

ICYMI: Our last blog covered the what’s what of your Carbon Footprint, get caught up here!

When it comes to your personal contribution to global carbon emissions, food is a major player. The basic logic goes like this: eating food is required for survival. We buy our food at grocery stores, where we’re presented with a smorgasbord of options that have traveled to us from all over the world. Our love of food often leads us to buy more than we need. Plus, many of our diets are heavy in meat due to the fact that we grew up eating it, want the protein or like the taste (the surge in popularity of keto and other low-carb diets doesn’t help either!). All that food, much of it processed, meat-based and travelling from afar—plus the excess food we waste—well, it adds up. It adds up to a pretty huge collective impact on the environment.

Hearing this, you might be intrigued. Maybe even a little worried. Perhaps you’re reaching nervously for the plastic-wrapped cookie or Twinkie or stick of beef jerky as you think: ‘Oh no, the calories… I mean, the carbon. The calories and the carbon?’
As it turns out, nutrition isn’t the only thing you need to be mindful of, you should also be considering the impact your snacking habits have on the health of the planet.

Don’t stress though! Whether or not we have a forest fire is not dependent on if you ate that Twinkie, however, let’s take this moment as an opportunity to break down everything you need to know about your carbon FOODprint:

What is my carbon FOODprint?

Your Carbon “FOODprint” is the cumulative carbon emissions resulting from everything it takes to get your food from the farm to your plate, and any waste that results. 

Since Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions are released into the environment when food is produced, transported, and consumed, the first step to rethinking your diet is to understand how the food you eat is made, how it gets to you, and how you eat it.

All foods have a footprint, but not all are created equal.

Let’s take meat as an example, since it’s undeniably the food group with the largest impact. The first question in assessing the environmental impact of any meat is this: How are the livestock fed? It’s estimated that in the U.S. alone, raising crops—mostly corn and soy—to feed livestock requires 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer. Fertilized soil combines with livestock manure to create a lot of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse (GHG) gas far more potent than CO₂.

Of the less than 1 percent of freshwater available for human use, a whopping 70 percent goes toward growing food and raising animals.

Raising livestock also requires a lot of space, which has led to the clearing of many forests to make way for cattle ranches. Cattle also require a LOT of water. Producing one pound of beef requires 1800 gallons of water. That’s much more than chicken (500 gallons), and much, much more than a plant-based protein like soybeans (216 gallons).

So, we’ve established that, as far as carbon goes, one serving of broccoli is not equal to one serving of steak. In fact, an individual's carbon FOODprint depends on a wide variety of factors, including whether or not they handpicked their berries from a backyard bush, or had them flown in from Mexico. 

A more in-depth FOODprint calculation metric is needed, of course. But before you grab your calculator and dive into a black hole of carbon footprint calculations, there are a few simple things you can do that will certainly help reduce your FOODprint.

1. Eat a primarily plant-based diet

It’s easy to suggest that you cut out meat and switch to a plant-based diet. And maybe you’re already part of the growing movement of meat minimization. But for some omnivores, drastic changes are a deterrent. So if you’re not prepared to go cold-turkey, no pun intended, it might be helpful to simply pick a day of the week to eliminate meat from your diet, or even choose to only indulge on weekends! With more meat substitute options than ever before, these simple strategies can be an easy way to drastically reduce your FOODprint.

Cattle farming in the U.S. occupies 149 million acres of cropland (that’s double the land area of Arizona!). 

2. Eat seasonally

Eating seasonally and buying local food may also help you reduce your footprint, as this cuts out the emissions associated with worldwide food shipment.  

For example, if you live in New York, out-of-season asparagus flown from Peru has a bigger footprint than bananas traveling by boat from Guatemala. Chances are, some of your food will have to be transported from elsewhere, even if you become an at-home organic gardener and spearhead an informal economy with your neighbors to round out all of your diets. 

Remember that, at the end of the shopping day, the mode of transportation matters more than the distance it takes to get to you. Generally speaking, if your food is traveling by air or road, it will leave a more significant impact on the environment, compared to food that is imported by rail or water.

3. Eat out less  

The hype of a new restaurant is hard to resist, but if you can limit how often you eat out, it can help minimize your carbon FOODprint. It’s unlikely you will know how the food was grown, reared, farmed, processed or transported before it got to your plate, which means it’s tricky to determine the total impact on your carbon footprint.

4. Conserve energy (and use your dishwasher!)

The alternative to eating out is to cook at home, but you may consider some minor tweaks to your process. Take a moment to think about all of the energy it takes to run a kitchen. Appliances are necessary to cook a meal, but the use of stoves, ovens, and microwaves accounts for 15% of energy, or 685 pounds of carbon emissions annually per household in the U.S.! Not to mention cleaning the dishes you dirty while cooking an epic meal, which takes a huge toll on the environment. 

So, when it comes time for cleaning up, opt for the dishwasher in place of hand washing. This helps reduce your impact. Of course, that’s only if you are using an efficient dishwasher — and you wait until it’s full before running it.

5. Waste less by planning ahead 

DYK: A meal lives on even after it has been grown, transported, cooked, and consumed?

The U.S. produces 620 billion pounds of garbage each year, 29% of which is food-related (this doesn’t include food-related waste that’s been properly recycled and composted). When it’s left to decompose in landfills, food-related waste produces methane gas (the same gas produced by cows’ digestion). Methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, absorbs the sun's heat and warms the atmosphere when leaked into the air, making it a key contributor to climate change.

Planning ahead for grocery shopping and meal prepping can eliminate the purchase of wasted ingredients or uneaten foods. For example, if you’re making a recipe that calls for a specific ingredient you won’t use entirely for that recipe, consider what else you can make to ensure it’s not dumped in the garbage, or search for ways to prolong the life of the ingredient. You could also ask a friend or neighbor for the ingredient you need—remember when people used to borrow a cup of sugar? Why not bring back that spirit of neighborliness (and wasteless-ness) and ask for cilantro, turmeric or whatever niche item you’re missing?

6. Compost & eat your leftovers!

Making good use of your compost system—whether it's in your backyard or a part of your city's municipal waste program—can drastically lower your FOODprint. Food scraps in a landfill are not exposed to oxygen, as they're squashed and capped with soil and clay to preserve landfill space and to reduce smell. 

As the food waste breaks down, without oxygen, it produces large amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas 21x more powerful than CO2). Composting, on the other hand, traditionally involves organic waste slowly decomposing in the presence of oxygen, a process that produces much less GHG. There are even new technologies emerging with the goal of capturing the gases from composting food waste and harnessing them for energy.

And you know what’s even better for the environment than composting? Turning yesterday's leftovers into today’s delicious meal. Repurposing your leftovers reduces the amount of food you waste and the amount of food you buy in the first place (because with leftovers, more often than not, you already have food, so you may not need to buy more).

Our plan for the future

At Planet A, we’re developing a method to calculate a continuous score for your carbon footprint based on your behaviours and purchases. Think step-counting for your carbon impact! Knowing where—and how—you’re accumulating the most carbon can help you implement the most effective lifestyle changes. One way you can take advantage of this is by scoring your impact based on how you buy and consume food. By providing you with a full picture of your food-related routines, we hope to empower you with the knowledge required to reduce your FOODprint.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.

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