The Hidden Meat of the Food Miles Debate
There’s a lot of carbon consciousness emerging. And it’s a happy thing. People everywhere are becoming aware of how daily life contributes to the climate crisis and how we can lower these impacts. One of the most popular is to choose local foods as a way to cut down on the “food miles” our meals travel from field to plate and the carbon emissions that travel creates. A new study, however, points out an overlooked truth in this debate: When it comes to global warming, how far our food travels isn’t as important as what that food is in the first place.
This study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University finds that we can have a much bigger impact on climate change by concentrating on eating less red meat and dairy products rather than focusing on eating foods produced close to home. That’s because when we add up all the climate-related effects food creates, transportation accounts for only about 11% of the average household’s food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while the methods used to produce that food are responsible for 83% of the total.
Here’s how food production-related GHG emissions break down:
- Red Meat is responsible for 30% of our national food supply’s total GHG emissions
- Dairy products are responsible for 18%
- Cereals & Carbs are responsible for 11%
- Fruits & vegetables are responsible for 11%
- Chicken, Fish & Eggs are responsible for 10%
- Other is responsible for 9%
- Beverages are responsible for 6%
- And Oils, Sweets & Condiments are responsible for 6%
With these numbers in mind, the study finds that replacing red meat and dairy products with chicken, fish, or eggs for just one day a week would be like driving 760 miles less each year. But switching to a 100% vegetable diet for just one day per week would be the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles less per year. By comparison, adopting a 100% local diet would produce the carbon savings of driving 1,000 miles less per year.
That said, this research certainly isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t buy local. As I’ve pointed out before, buying local food has lots of other benefits besides those related to global warming. But from a purely climate change perspective, it’s not the only attribute or even the most important one our food can have. As always, the ultimate solution is composed of many different smaller answers. We can do a lot by eating local. But we can do even more by choosing fruits and veggies over red meat and picking fish instead of dairy. Make those kinds of choices with local food sources and we’ll do more still and have, I would think, a serious recipe for keeping cool in the kitchen.