Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Food miles don't feed climate change - meat does"

We've blogged about vegetarianism as a great way to reduce your climate impact. But would eating imported fruits and vegetables negate the carbon benefits of avoiding meat? According to a recent study, the answer is a resounding "No". In fact, it's quite the opposite! Being vegetarian more than offsets the carbon emissions from imported plant-based foods. Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have done the math. reports:
"Weber's team combined statistics on greenhouse gas emissions for different foods with estimated greenhouse footprints for transport for each step in a food's production and final delivery.

"Food travelled an average of 1640 km in its final trip to the grocery store, out of total of 6760 km on the road for the raw ingredients. But some foods log more kilometres than others. Red meat averaged 20,400 km – just 1800 of those from final delivery.

"Accounting for greenhouse gas emissions made those contrasts even starker. Final delivery 'food-miles' make up just 1% of the greenhouse emissions of red meat, and 11% for fruits and vegetables.

"To drive his point home, Weber calculated that a completely local diet would reduce a household's greenhouse emissions by an amount equivalent to driving a car 1600 km fewer per year. He assumed the car travels 10.6 km per litre of petrol (25 mpg). Switching from red meat to veggies just one day per week would spare 1860 km of driving.

"'The differences between eating habits are very, very striking,' Weber says."

This is great news for people in northern countries like Canada. Dietitians of Canada state that fruits and vegetables are an important part of a balanced diet. Yet fresh local produce is often impossible to find during the winter, and imported fresh produce can be expensive. The Canadian Cancer Society states that frozen, canned or dried fruits and vegetables can be good choices, too. But having looked at food labels, I've realized that many of these items come from warmer climes, as well.

The latest research implies that you can stop worrying so much about the carbon footprint of your imported carrots, oranges, and frozen okra. Just eat local produce when you can -- and most importantly, emphasize plant proteins like beans and bean products, nuts and whole grains. It's really that simple!

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