Think Globally, Eat Locally


During his testimony about the climate crisis before Congress last month, Al Gore noted that the Chinese expression for "crisis" consists of two characters side by side: the first means "danger;" the second, "opportunity."

The danger the planet faces -- as the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes clear -- is beyond dispute. So is a primary cause: human activity.

Gore's testimony and the IPCC report were meant primarily to encourage policymakers to take action. But given the seriousness of the planetary crisis, we, as individuals, can ill afford to sit back and wait for new laws, regulations and advances in technology. Herein lies opportunity. We can turn off the lights and turn down the hot water, recycle, drive less, adjust our thermostats. But perhaps most important as individuals, we can change the way we eat.

To take the bite out of climate change, consider some greenhouse gas-lowering dietary guidelines:

# Eat locally. In its recent annual buzzword low-down, The New York Times pronounced "food miles" -- the measurement of the distance our food travels to reach us -- among last year's top terms. No wonder it's such a popular term here in the United States. On average, our food has clocked from 1,500 to 2,500 miles to get to us, estimates the World Watch Institute; that's 25 percent farther than two decades ago. New Jersey consumers' year-round fresh tomato craving burns the fossil fuel equivalent of driving an 18-wheeler to the moon and back 13 times.

Of course, some long-distance transportation of food is essential -- just ask a java junkie. But much of what is traded across borders is environmentally illogical. Merely eliminating redundancies -- importing the same or similar commodities that we produce and export -- would produce significant savings. So would keeping processing near production. Shipping whole chickens, for example, to China only to import them back, defies all energy-conserving logic.

# Eat seasonally. Making the choice for local means eating a seasonally varied diet, but that's hardly a sacrifice. Here in the Pacific Northwest, a seasonal diet celebrates the region's bounty. It means feasting on cabbages, hearty root veggies, squashes, bulbs and fruits that store well through the winter and maintain a vibrant sprout farm on your kitchen counter. But salad lovers, fear not. Using heat from the sun and compost, season-defying farmers are able to satisfy a determined locavore's winter cravings with cold-hearty greens.

# Choose organic. Widely accepted organic farming principles and USDA certification rules prohibit the use of nearly all synthetic pesticides, including fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, weed killers, insecticides and most fungicides used to control plant diseases. A study by Cornell University Professor David Pimentel suggests that organic farming systems use 30 percent less energy. Following established production guidelines, organic farms emit between one-half and two-thirds less carbon dioxide per acre than chemical-based systems.

# Quench thirst with tap water. Last month's announcement that Chez Panisse would no longer offer imported bottled water set a high bar for other eateries and consumers, alike. Nationally, we're consuming 26 gallons of bottled water per person per year, up from just 1.6 gallons 30 years ago, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.

Consider the climate change costs of this annual $11 billion annual obsession, including the bottling and transportation and the disposal and recycling of the containers.

Instead of this costly commodification, drinking water should be protected and promoted as a safe, free public good. Plus, frequent trips to the drinking fountain at work or school will not only reduce the environmental costs, but increase physical activity, too.

# Eat enough, but not too much. With more than one in three American adults now obese, eating less is certainly a health imperative, but it's also an environmental one. Nutrition and food system researchers Dorothy Blair of Penn State University and Jeff Sobal of Cornell University estimate that between 1983 and 2000, the amount of food available per person per day in the U.S. increased by 18 percent, or 600 calories. If one accounts greenhouse absorption, they estimate the environment footprint imposed by these extra calories is a whopping 249 million land and water acres

# Junk junk food; say so long to soda. Highly processed foods with added sugars and fat and stripped of intrinsic fiber and nutrients require substantial energy to produce, process and transport -- they're not so great for our health, either. Each year, Americans consume more calories from soft drinks than any other single food. To supply enough high-fructose corn syrup to sweeten this 53-gallon per person per year habit we use up a land area nearly twice the size of Rhode Island to grow the corn and use up enough gasoline in the process of manufacturing the fertilizer and pesticides and powering the machinery to till the land, irrigate, harvest, and transport the crop to drive more than 6,000 Priuses from New York City to Los Angeles and back. For what? Empty calories, unhealthy girth and a warming planet.

# Eat less meat, choose pasture-raised. Globally, livestock production is responsible for nearly two-thirds of all ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions and more than one-third of methane emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Raising livestock in confinement is also an extremely oil-dependent system, with much fossil fuel expended to cultivate, fertilize, harvest and transport feed.

In contrast, pasture-based production lets livestock do what they're biologically intended to do: forage for food. In these systems, animal droppings add fertility to pastures instead of becoming noxious pollutants. By lowering the fossil energy required to feed animals, we reduce the greenhouse gas emissions per ounce of meat or milk in our diets.

# Eat smart. To address the climate crisis, we can get smarter about where opportunities lie, and see these opportunities in every bite we eat. If we do, we'll all be healthier and so will our planet.

Jennifer Wilkins studies the relationship between health and the food system at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. Anna Lappé writes about food and sustainability and is the co-author of "Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen."

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