Contributed by: Megan Glenn
Megan Glenn is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. You can find more of her work, or contact her here:
Since Europeans first imported tea from China, food has traveled across the globe, but never at the speed or in the magnitude that it has over the last decade. According to the United Nations, what we eat, drink, and consume directly impacts climate change. Reducing both individual and collective (businesses, countries, and industries), carbon footprinting is needed in the fight for environmental responsibility.
A carbon footprint is the measurement of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) that individuals, entities, and countries all transmit as a result of how products are consumed, farming, electricity use, waste disposal, and many more factors. Responsible behaviors such as purchasing local produce as an individual consumer and organic farming all work to reduce a currently significant carbon footprint in the food industry.
The fight for sustainable food production is a critical area within climate change because food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. When food is transported from one place to another, distance, volume, and demand can all potentially heighten the carbon footprint. For example, local food requires fewer fossil fuels to get to your table than importing foreign goods and even relying on domestically grown food products from other parts of the U.S.
Locally Produced Food
The Farm Act that was passed in 2008 qualified the official distance for locally or regionally produced agricultural food as 400 miles from its origin, or within the state in which it is produced. The costs associated with transporting local food are far more controlled than transporting food, both domestically and internationally. Salaries for local drivers and gas for small delivery vehicles are far more sustainable, both environmentally and are considerably cost-efficient for local growers. Farmers markets are an easy way to shop locally, and many small surrounding farms load up on stock for busy market days. Local markets often have more than just food. Fresh baked goods, teas, honey, and many other local businesses of all kinds showcase products for purchase.
Domestically Produced Food
Most foods in the U.S. travel at least 1,500 miles before it gets to its final destination to be sold in a grocery store. Costs tend to increase when food is sourced domestically because it has to be transported by train, airplane, or truck. Semi-tractor-trailer trucks operate on diesel fuel, and rising prices are increasing transport costs significantly. Other factors in rising prices include increased federal regulations that govern driver hours, driver shortages that are inflating wages, and heightened demand for fresh and frozen food.
Foreign goods require transit by trucks, trains, airplanes, and many times large cargo ships, all of which depend on fossil fuels. Shipping accounts for up to 3% of global emissions and 10% of transport emissions. But imported foods generate more emissions than people realize because of the layers of packaging and refrigeration often needed. Food from international ports pass through various production checkpoints, packaging processes, and distribution centers before finally reaching its destination. Cargo ships can use up to 63,000 gallons of marine fuel per day when carrying around 18,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in big shipping containers.
Even though locally produced food has a lower carbon footprint, it’s also essential to look at how food is produced, considering that food production counts for 83 percent of greenhouse emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions, which are gases that heat the Earth’s atmosphere, are impacted by pollutants from transportation mechanisms such as cars, airplanes, ships, trains, and trucks, and other activities like fracking, and fertilizers. Factors that increase the carbon footprint of food production specifically are fertilizer, plowing, irrigation, pesticides, and more. There’s also a difference in the emissions that are created through these various food growing processes. For example, Nitrous oxide emissions are 298 times more potent than CO2, and this type of emission comes from nitrogen fertilizer. Methane emissions are 25 times more potent than CO2, and these emissions are a result of digestive secretions from cows and sheep. Meat and dairy products also play a centric role in producing emissions from growing grain to feed cows, and studies show that red meat accounts for about 150 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than chicken or fish. Global warming and the health of our environment lies in controlling the carbon footprint of the entire world and buying sustainable food products is one of many ways that we can all do our part to leave a whole environment for future generations.