Making Cooler Food Choices

April 25, 2008

squash plantsCUESA volunteer Michelle O’Herron wrote this week’s feature.

On March 31, CUESA hosted the second lecture in a two-part series about food and global climate change. While the first discussion focused on how climate change may affect agriculture, the second turned the question around to look at how our food choices affect the climate. Panelists Helene York, Director of Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation; Gail Feenstra, Food Systems Analyst at the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program; and chef Laura Stec, author of Beyond The Global Warming Diet: Cool Recipes for a Hot Planet, shared their perspectives on this issue. This week, we offer a brief summary of some of the information they presented.

Approximately one fifth of all the energy consumed in the United States goes into feeding Americans. Only about 21% of that energy is actually used for agricultural production, providing things like fuel, fertilizer and electricity. A whopping 48% is used for transport, packaging and processing, and the remaining 31% for home refrigeration and cooking. While these figures are sobering, the good news is that we can make choices about how we grow, transport, package and dispose of our food that will reduce both our energy consumption and our contribution to global warming.

But where do we start?

Panelist Dr. Gail Feenstra and her colleagues at UC Davis have adopted a way to calculate the environmental impacts of food production that has been under development in Europe for the last decade. Known as “life cycle assessments,” this system quantifies the carbon footprint of each step in the food production and distribution process, including irrigation, fertilizers, fuel, packaging and transport between the farm, wholesalers, retailers and the end consumer.

Because the data does not exist for food production in the United States, the UC Davis team worked with experts from Europe to figure out how to apply the life cycle assessment methodology here. They decided to apply five dilemmas or trade-offs consumers often face to a set of case study foods. The dilemmas included common consumer quandaries such as “local or organic?” and “meat or vegetarian?”

Their analysis revealed “hotspots”— points in the process where there is high energy use and high greenhouse gas production. They discovered that the biggest climate impacts came from livestock raised in feedlots, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, heated greenhouse production, air freight, post-retail transport and food waste at all points in the supply chain. Thanks to the life cycle assessment, we can now focus our efforts on addressing these hotspots.

Panelist Helene York has used this assessment to advance the sustainable food sourcing practices of Bon Appétit Management Company. Bon Appétit is setting a stellar example of how both companies and individual buyers can chose to move towards a more sustainable food system. On average, over 30% of the food used in the company’s 400 cafés nationwide comes from within 150 miles of where it is being served. Bon Appétit’s comprehensive approach also includes investing in farmer co-ops, consolidating their trucking system and incorporating biofuel vehicles—all part of the company’s goal to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. Under the company’s recently unveiled Low Carbon Diet program, chefs and customers are given sustainability guidelines to help them make better choices.

In her upcoming book, Beyond The Global Warming Diet: Cool Recipes for a Hot Planet, chef and author Laura Stec agrees that we need to make better food choices, and describes how to make satisfying meals using sustainable sources. She contends that while it is not realistic to expect most people to radically change their eating habits, there are small steps that nearly everyone can take. The key, she argues, is to not make a low carbon diet about rules, but to emphasize the connection we get from sharing a meal and our enjoyment of food as a sensual experience.

The abundant agricultural resources available here in California provide tremendous opportunities to take Laura’s advice and make better choices about how we approach food and eating. Thanks to the work of people like Helene and Gail, we also know what we need to do to make the greatest difference. To learn more about climate-friendly eating, or to create your own low-carbon diet, see the following website:

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