Recently I read two books in a row about the environmental impact of our food, specifically the carbon footprint of the food we eat.
For a cooking literature book group, we discussed the cookbook called Plenty, which I reviewed last week. While organizing my books and going through some titles (for late-winter spring cleaning) I came across another book I had bought long ago from Powell’s bookstore called Plenty. This one, however, wasn’t a cookbook, but rather a sort of account by a couple in Vancouver, BC who practiced a 100-mile diet for an entire year. For a whole year, starting in March, the two, Alisa Smith and James Mackinnon ate only food found within a 100-mile radius of their home.
Difference in Different People
I am quite intrigued by doing an “as-local-as-possible” diet. However, I have to admit, the more limitations you place on your eating habits, the harder it is to generally eat. For instance, I practice a mostly vegetarian Mediterranean lifestyle for me and my husband. It’s the easiest way for me to implement our dietary restrictions for our health and well-being. With kidney disease, Chris has to really watch his salt intake and protein intake. That’s why vegetarian and Mediterranean work well for us. But we also try to cut down on some processed foods, like baked goods and bread products (unless I make them myself), and we try to cut out sugar, especially refined or added sugars.
But when we try to go Paleo or Keto on our vegetarian Mediterranean lifestyle, it gets exceedingly difficult. Which is also the case if we were to go super-locavore, like the 100-mile diet. We live in a very food-dense part of the world, but there is a lot of food which we would need to thrive that conflicts with our current lifestyle. And food which we need in our lives that is not congruent with a 100-mile diet.
Not to mention as much as I adore a local and seasonal eating lifestyle, it is NOT cheap. As Alisa and James found out for their first meal on their new challenge. Without planning for it, and looking at the supermarket or local stores for food found within 100 miles of their home, the two spent $128 on one meal. As the seasons turned and they were able to find local farms, grow food, and prepare for the winter seasons appropriately, Alisa and James got into a groove. They bought cheese in the United States because it was cheaper. They came across a walnut farmer and walked away with 17 pounds of walnuts for very cheap. A local fisherman became their “dealer” for locally and sustainably sourced seafood.
If you can plan for it, and have the means to do it, eating a locavore diet is just about the best thing you can do for your community, your health, and the world. Eating locally means we support farmers and local producers of our food. It means we eat food within the season which often provides added and beneficial minerals and nutrients. And it cuts down on our carbon footprint.
How Far Did It Go?
The average meal in America travels 1500-3000 miles before it gets to our plate. So, cutting down on how far our food travels helps cut down on carbon emissions and oil consumption.
But it does go a bit deeper than that, and not all foods are created equal. Right after I finished Plenty, I picked up a library book which needs to go back pretty soon called How Bad are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee. This handy little book give the carbon footprint of everything, as its subtitle infers. And that’s where I made a surprising discovery. Food miles matters, or at least the transport of food matters. The most detrimental way to travel is by airplane, so food that is shipped by air has the highest footprint, while those shipped by boat have the lowest. Apples, oranges, and bananas are actually among the most carbon-friendly fruits you can eat. They don’t require refrigeration to travel, and they stay good for a decent amount of time after they are harvested, so they can withstand a trip by boat.
However, I had a huge argument with the author while reading this book. It doesn’t matter he couldn’t hear me, I needed to get this out.
More Than Food Miles
Our environmental impact from food is not JUST about how far it traveled. This weighs really heavy on our impact. Nearly 42% of our carbon emissions comes from food production, transport, and processing. But it’s not the only thing that matters.
For instance, Berners-Lee basically stated that bananas, despite traveling an average of 1800 miles to get to us, are fine to eat, explaining in the book how “healthy” they are. Okay, to be clear, bananas are SIGNIFICANTLY healthier than sugar. They are actually much lower on the glycemic index than most sugary foods like dates, honey, and agave nectar. I use them frequently when baking in breads and a favorite of mine called no-bake cookies. But I don’t know if I’d go so far as to consider them a HEALTH-food. And they still travel a huge distance, even if that distance is covered by a low carbon-emitting source.
But the worst part of bananas exemplifies exactly why we need to look at ALL our food super carefully. I am by no means an expert on the environmental impact of ALL our food. I read a lot, and I do a lot of research for my clients, my readers, and my class participants so they don’t have to. But I don’t know everything. However, I’ve studied up on bananas. And while they may not pose a huge environmental impact in way of carbon-emissions, the banana producing industry (not bananas themselves, those guys are cool) is downright horrific.
How Bad ARE Bananas?
Export agriculture, products grown for the sole purpose of exporting around the world, is the leading contributor to deforestation. And sorry to say, but bananas are a huge part of this industry in the Amazon rainforests. Bananas need natural sunlight to grow, but rather than use already cleared land or even combine products to save land, banana plantations cut down rainforest to make way for the world’s most popular fruit.
But bananas in particular are also one of the biggest examples of food waste on earth. It kills me every time I hear this, but 40% of all bananas produced don’t even make it to the supermarkets because they are not the right specifications for stores. This is not the banana’s fault, or even the producers. This, guys, is on US. The consumers. Because GOD FORBID our bananas are too BIG or too SMALL. Perfectly good bananas are thrown away at just an unimaginable rate.
And some of the smaller farms have other related issues. By having to switch transportation mode several times to make it to their market, many of their bananas are bruised and “unseemly”. They are still perfectly good to eat, but they are rejected simply for their appearance.
I’m not here to tell you not to eat bananas. That choice is up to you. But we should be informed and aware what impact our food has on this earth.
I’m sure there are hundreds of other foods we could find fault with, both in regard to their foodprint or other factors they impact on the environment. I’m sure my chickpeas are causing controversy SOMEWHERE, or the portobello mushrooms I use to make bacon uses underpaid illegal immigrants ( I’m not sure I want you to tell me if this is the case, please for the love of everything pure in this world let me have ONE FREAKING THING that isn’t causing the end of the world).
Our food has an impact. It has a tremendous impact on our overall health, and it has a tremendous impact on the health of the planet. It’s why Eating Green is the top way I connect fitness to conservation. But it’s important to do what we can, for our health and sanity. We can’t do it all. And if we each just do our small part, we don’t have to. Anne Marie Bonneau says it best: “We don’t need a few people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
What impact is your food having on your life? Make it just a little better today, and eat a little cleaner, live a little greener, and train much more positive.