“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Prediction: this will not be my last post about food. This probably isn’t even in the bottom 10 of my sequential posts about food. I love food so much! I love meal-planning, shopping for ingredients, cooking it, eating it. I love getting better at all of these things and putting in research on how to get better.
So I wanted to start high-level and look at the biggest ways to make a positive impact on the way one shops for, prepares, and eats their food, both for the environment and for themselves.
1. Don’t Be Wasteful
According to a 2013 report by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), approximately one-third of the world’s food is lost or wasted. This amounts to around 1.3 GTonnes… that’s 1.3 gigatonnes! That’s equal to approximatly 3 TILLION pounds of food.
Let’s put that in context. It’s estimated that 550 million Big Macs are sold every year in the U.S. At about half a pound, that’s 225 million pounds of food annually. It would take McDonald’s nearly 13,000 years for the pile of Big Macs sold to equal the pile of global food lost in one year.
Now, not all of this waste is food that was simply thrown away. A good portion of it is food that was grown and deemed unsuitable to eat for one reason or another, such as a diseased crop. And another portion of the loss happens before food is available for purchase; corporations and businesses factor some loss into their budget, referred to as “shrink”. When I was in college, I worked stocking shelves for a grocery store. Before cartons of eggs were able to be put on the shelf, we needed to check every carton for broken eggs. If even one egg was broken, the entire carton would be considered contaminated and would be unceremoniously thrown away. Seriously, me and my fellow twenty-something coworkers would take out our boredom and frustration from being young and working in a grocery store by taking turns fast pitching eggs one at a time into the industrial sized trash compactor in the backroom. This was before the age of iPhones, kids. We took our fun where we could.
Now, this blog is all about changes that we, as individuals, can make. So let’s set aside all of the pre-consumer loss that happens and focus on what goes on in our own houses. It’s estimated that we throw out as much as 40% of the food we buy. When we put food into our trash cans, we are not only directly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions by adding volume to a landfill, we are indirectly contributing as well by having wasted all of the resources that when into making that food appear in your house. Growing and transporting food is an enormous part of global emissions.
So the simplest and most direct solution here is to simply not waste food. Easier said than done, yes, but there are steps one can take to help in this arena. Meal planning and targeted grocery shopping are very big first steps. If you know exactly what you need to buy at the grocery store for the next week, and only get those things, you’re less likely to end up with wasted food. And try to schedule a “leftover” day once a week and pull all of the week’s leftovers out and let the family fight to the death over the best ones. Also research the best way to store different types of food so that they last longer.
Finally, if you’re not composting yet, you really should be. Composting not only is better for the environment by keeping waste out of landfills, it can also save you money by giving you your own enriched soil you can use to grow your own food. And you’ll be amazed at the amount of things you can compost! Did you know human hair and fingernail clippings can go in a compost pile? I didn’t until I started collecting compostables myself. If you don’t feel you have the time, energy, or know-how to compost on your own (like me), there may be a service you can use that will do the dirty work for you. I use Recycled City. They drop off a bin each week. I fill it up with my food scraps, coffee filters and tea bags, and other compostables, and then leave it out front one week later for them to pick up and exchange for a new bin. Couldn’t be easier! And every 3 months I can request to receive soil from them.
2. Stop Eating Red Meat
Humans have been eating meat for around 2.5 million years. The main benefit of meat is that it provides a plethora of nutrients all at once and is therefore more efficient to get calories than a diet consisting of only non-meat foods. This was very advantageous to our ancestors, especially before the agricultural revolution, when food was more scarce.
But the thing is, food isn’t as scarce anymore. As we just learned, we’re throwing away about a third of all of the food we make. Now, that isn’t to say that there aren’t food shortages happening around the world, but that is mostly a political problem and an issue with distribution and logistics. In most of the modern world, food is no longer a scarce resource.
So it is now possible, and actually not at all difficult, to eliminate red meat from one’s diet and still maintain nutritional needs. In fact, a diet that is lower in red meat and higher in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains is likely better for your overall health.
But here’s the hangup for most people: red meat is fucking delicious. And it’s easy to make. Throw a steak on pretty much any heated surface for three or five minutes per side and you’re dining like a King. Pop over to just about any fast food restaurant and you’ll be chowing on a burger without even having to leave your car. And because of red meat’s high efficiency in nutrients, it’s often cheaper than getting those nutrients from a more diverse diet. So aside from the health benefits, there’s not a lot of motivation to change.
Unless, of course, you’re motivated to not die. Aside from the adverse health effects, red meat, and specifically cows, make up a good amount of greenhouse emissions. Methane (yup, we’re talkin’ cow farts) are up to 30 times as potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Some reports even go as far as to speculate that eliminating red meat would have a bigger effect on climate-change-causing greenhouse gases than eliminating cars would, although I’m skeptical of going that far as cars and other transportation vehicles make up a much larger portion of greenhouse gases entering our atmosphere than livestock does. But having fewer cows definitely will make a significant impact no matter how you slice it. According to the Washington Post, “If you trade in steak for beans once a week for a year, you will keep the equivalent of 331 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere.” That’s enough for me.
3. Look for the RSPO Label
Palm oil is bad. Really bad. It’s responsible for wiping out 25% of the rainforest lands in Indonesia only. And when those lands are cleared for palm oil plantations, they are burned, which releases a tremendous amount of carbon into the air. Not to mention, we now have fewer trees to reabsorb that carbon.
Palm oil is also in just about everything we buy. Breads and pastas. Butters and cheeses. Soaps and shampoos. Some parts of the world even use palm oil as a biofuel, ironically trying to reduce the carbon output while unwittingly adding to it.
This is because palm oil is versatile and efficient. It grows fast and is harvested easily. Therefore, even if we could find alternatives to palm oil, they likely wouldn’t provide a net benefit to carbon output. The energy required to grow, harvest, and transport another type of oil, or oils, to replace palm oil would be counterproductive.
Now, as of yet, there’s no perfect solution to this problem. But steps are being made, and one of them is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification. In short, the RSPO seeks to regulate the palm oil farming industry so that the global demand is satiated without contributing to further deforestation. The Roundtable is large (their site purports over 4,000 members) so changes are slow and often fall short of ultimate goals. But it’s progressing in the right direction. And the best way to help the RSPO move faster toward its goals is by supporting sustainable palm oil production. And they’ve made it relatively easy.
This label indicates that a product is ROSP certified and thereby supports sustainable palm oil farming. The more products that are bought using this label, the higher the demand will be for sustainable palm oil and the more companies will make the effort to get the label on their products. Since I’m on the Mediterranean diet (see, I told you!) I already look for the Whole Grain stamp on my breads, pastas, and cereals to make sure I’m getting plenty of that whole grainy goodness! It’s not too much effort to add this step into your shopping and soon it becomes second nature to look and be sure your stuff is all RSPO certified.
And speaking of adding steps to your shopping habits…
4. Pay Attention to Packaging
In my first blog post here I talked a bit about how what you put into your shopping bags has a bigger impact on if you use plastic, paper, or reusable shopping bags. This is true not only if you’re putting layers of red meat in your bag; what your food is packaged in can have a huge impact as well.
A lot of food is packaged in one-time use plastic. Or is wrapped or sealed in some sort of thin plastic wrap that is unable to be recycled and instead goes to a landfill (or the ocean). Think of cereal boxes which use both cardboard and plastic bags in their packaging. Are both really needed? Maybe just get the cereal that’s in plastic bags only (which are usually cheaper BTW).
Now, it’s likely not going to be possible to avoid any and all packaging when grocery shopping unless you’re shopping exclusively at farmer’s markets. But there are many things you can do to limit the amount of packaging you’ll need to throw away at home.
The biggest impact can actually come in the produce section. Try to buy the fruits and veggies that are on display without packaging–for example buying a full head of lettuce instead of the pre-shredded lettuce that comes in a plastic bag. Or pre-bagged apples or avocados. Avoiding putting your items in those plastic tear-away bags if you can; you can always clean your items when you get home. Or, if your worried about bacteria and germs in the shopping cart, bring some paper towels with you to wrap your fruits and veggies in until you get to the checkout. Your paper towels can be added to your compost bin when you get home!
Another big thing to look for is plastic bottles. They’re great because they don’t break when dropped. But they’re terrible because they’re, well, plastic. Try to purchase items in glass bottles and jars instead. If you are buying meat, try going up to the counter instead of getting the pre-wrapped meats that are often packaged in plastic and Styrofoam. Often the butcher will wrap your meat in brown or wax paper (not perfect but still leagues better than plastic & Styrofoam).
Buying in bulk will also have an impact. Buying 70 vegetarian burger patties in a single cardboard box is going to mean less waste than if you bought 7 individual packages of 10 veggie burgers. Just be wary of multi-level packaging where, for instance, 5 individual packages of 10 rolls of toilet paper are wrapped up into a big package of 50 rolls. You’ll have a layer of plastic over the whole thing, and then another layer for each package within.
Overall, as you are buying groceries, be thinking about how much of each product has elements that will end up in the trash or recycle bins. Do not think that just because a plastic bottle can go into the recycling bin that it doesn’t have an environmental impact. Often items that go off to recycling centers get rejected and still end up in a landfill. It’s best to limit the amount of stuff going into either the trash or recycling bin altogether. Most cardboard and other paper wrappings and compostable, and while glass does go in the recycling bin, it has a better chance of being successfully recycled, or can be reused in the house.
5. Limit Driving to and from the Store
The only thing, globally, that has a bigger impact to climate-change-causing emissions than food production is energy consumption, although there is definitely some overlap since food itself it a large contributor to the manufacturing and shipping industries. But high on the list of top contributors are the very cars we’re driving around in every day. It’s a near necessity to modern life and it has been designed that way.
While it’s definitely possible to use public or other modes of transport to get to and from the store, I fully understand that this is not at all realistic for everyone, myself included. I have a household of six people (3 adults, 3 kids) and shopping for everyone in anything besides my own vehicle would be a nightmare trying to carry all of our groceries home with us. Luckily, the nearest grocery store is very close to the house so it’s a short trip to and from. Therefore, the biggest impact that someone like me can make is to limit the number of times that trip needs to be taken.
This is where meal planning and shopping lists become huge. In our house, Thursday night is meal-planning night, after the mandatory fight-to-the-death-for-leftovers has commenced (see #1 in this entry). We plan out the next week’s meals and then create our shopping list. The grocery shopping for the next 7 days will get completed before dinner Friday night and then the cycle starts again. This means I only take one trip to the grocery store a week, and I usually am able to do it on my way home from work, so not adding any additional miles to my driving.
The best solution would be not to drive at all, of course. Walk, take a bus, hop on one of those trendy scooters that are lying around everywhere, whatever works best. But if you must drive to the store, try to do it as few times as possible. And try to do it while you’re out and about anyway. And try to limit the number of places you need to visit, unless your extra stop is a farmer’s market, which I’ll always Stan for.
Food is an obvious huge part of everyone’s life. And it can and should be enjoyed and celebrated. There’s plenty of fantastic ways to continue to have food be that joyous, cultural aspect of life while also positively impacting the planet. Limit the amount of emissions it takes to get the food from the farm to you, limit the amount of plastic and red meat in your shopping cart, research and support sustainable products, and compost everything that you can.