It was “World Food Day” when I started this article but I had to go to the dentist… Anyway, the message here is to take the holistic view when considering our personal health, the health of the planet and the health of others. It is all supremely interconnected.
If you’ve ever cared for cats, you’ll know that in old cats, their weakness is often their kidneys. Why? Because cats tend to live on meat food, and meat is harder on kidneys than other kinds of food. (Cats often don’t drink enough water and that contributes to the problem.) The kidneys must work harder to process meat proteins. Guess what? It works exactly the same way in humans. Diets that are very high in meat, particularly beef have been shown to be less healthy in a variety of ways, including higher cholesterol, arterial and heart disease, colon cancer, kidney disease and generally higher mortality rates. Processed red meats — including bacon, hot dogs, sausage, bologna, salami, and similar meats — appear to carry the highest risk of health problems.
Here is where the holistic vision comes into play. Red meat has the highest carbon footprint and consumes large quantities of grain which could be repurposed to feed victims of famine. Think about all the energy required to raise a cow, feed it with grain transported from somewhere else, ship it to processing, process it, and then ship it to the consumer. The carbon footprint of a single cow is huge. Also, the more processed the meat is, the more energy is required to produce it. We pay the highest carbon price on the food that is most dangerous to us.
In a similar way, we tend to over-process our vegetable carbohydrates and in that process, we strip the fiber out of them. Think of things like white flour or McDonalds French fries. If you have struggled with glucose intolerance or type 2 diabetes, or even just wanted to lose some weight on the South Beach Diet, you will know that the fiber in carbohydrates makes all the difference in healthy versus unhealthy eating. Foods which are higher in fiber digest more slowly and release glucose into your system more gradually. This allows your body time to use the glucose for energy rather than storing it as fat. When a lot of glucose gets dumped into your system all at once, the body can’t use it all and stores it as fat. At persistently high levels, excess blood sugar can lead to neuropathy and blindness. Again, we pay the highest carbon price on the food that is most dangerous to us.
A McDonalds French fry has a much larger carbon footprint than a baked potato, and perversely, the French fry has far less fiber and nutrients than the baked potato (especially if you eat some of the skin of the baked potato). It requires much more energy to ship the potatoes to a factory where they are turned to mush and then formed into tidy little sticks, and then shipped to the local McDonalds, than it does to simply grow the potato and ship it to the store where it is purchased.
Most of us never stop to think about the carbon footprint of our food production. The concise version is that the food production footprint is huge and there are areas where it can be significantly improved.
Here’s some facts from the School for Environment & Sustainability, University of Michigan about your daily bread that may shock you (I hope they shock you):
- On average, U.S. household food consumption emits 8.1 metric tons of CO2e each year. The production of food accounts for 83% of emissions, while its transportation accounts for 11%.
- The emissions associated with food production consist mainly of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (NO2), which result primarily from agricultural practices.
- Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy.
- Eating all locally grown food for one year could save the GHG equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, while eating a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles.
- A vegetarian diet greatly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint, but switching to less carbon intensive meats can have a major impact as well. For example, replacing all beef consumption with chicken for one year leads to an annual carbon footprint reduction of 882 pounds CO2e.
Amazing, huh? No one can save the planet alone, but when a statistically significant number of people begin to use these sustainable practices, we can begin to lower the carbon footprint of our nutrition while making ourselves significantly healthier and less obese. Everyone wins except the junk food peddlers.
Here are a few practical suggestions for becoming a more sustainable eater:
- Become a “locavore.” This means to eat locally produced food as much as possible. This reduces the energy needed to ship food, and local food tends to be fresh.
- Eat more vegetables and less meat.
- Eat more white meat and less red meat.
- Eat more fresh food and less packaged and processed food.
- In bread and pasta, chose the whole wheat versions over the white flour versions.
- Look for sustainable packaging. If one product is in a plastic container and a similar one is in a paper container, buy the paper.
- Avoid single use plastics (sorry Keurig).
- Learn to cook.
- If you have the capability, walk or ride a bicycle to the grocery.
If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend the page linked above as a starting point. They also have a collection of fact sheets in PDF format for making handouts and such:
School for Environment & Sustainability
University of Michigan
3012 Dana Building
440 Church Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1041
Phone: (734) 764-1412