Save the environment through your refrigerator

As your mother has probably told you: eat your fruits and vegetables.

As the nutrition experts have told you: keep a divided plate, eating so many servings of not only fruits and veggies, but proteins, carbohydrates and more.

But maybe it isn’t just your health that everyone has been keeping in mind—but also the environment’s.

There has been a recent media blitz about impending cultural changes—acidifying oceans, global warming and ice caps melting, just to name a few—and one of them may be found in your refrigerator. That’s right: the food you are consuming is impacting the environment in just as many ways.

A study from the Environmental Working Group looked at greenhouse gas emissions from farming, processing, transporting and disposing of common proteins and vegetables. The environmental effect of these products was divided in two ways: production emissions, which included any greenhouse emissions prior to leaving the farm and post-farmgate emissions, which included everything from processing to cooking the product(s).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, meat products ranked far higher on the scale than vegetables. Lamb clocked in at the highest, generating 39.3 kg (86.4 lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

Although beef and lamb generate comparable amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide) and require a similar amount of feed, beef is second in the list at only 27.1 kgs (59.6 lbs) of CO2e per kilo consumed. Pork slides in at fourth, followed by farmed salmon, turkey, chicken and canned tuna.

What is surprising about this chart, perhaps, is that cheese is ranked third among highest emissions with 13.5 kgs (29.7 lbs) of CO2e—however, not all cheeses are created equal. Less dense cheeses, such as cottage cheese that take less milk to produce, result in fewer greenhouse gasses.

But why do most of the emissions of these foods come during the production phase?

For beef and dairy products, the culprit is methane (CH4). Emissions from digestion and manure spike methane levels. Growing feed for these animals generates nitrous oxide, which also can impact emissions.

For other animals, their emissions come from other places. For example, farmed fish emissions come from feed production. Wild fish emissions, on the other hand, primarily come from diesel combustion on fishing boats.

Vegetables, overall, create far less emissions than meat and most dairy products. Lentils have the lowest emissions on the list of 20 products with 0.9 kgs (1.98 lbs) of CO2e. Other vegetables featured on the list include broccoli (2.0 kgs (4.41 lbs)) and tomatoes (1.1 kgs (2.42 lbs)).

So how can you help reduce your environmental footprint through your refrigerator?

According to this study, cutting out meat (even if it is just once a week) can greatly impact the environment. Their statistics for a year without meat do the talking:

  • One less burger a week is equivalent to taking your car off the road for 320 miles.
  • A family of four skipping meat and cheese once a week would be like taking the car off the road for five weeks.
  • And if everyone in the U.S. gave up meat and cheese once per week, it would be equal to not driving 91 billion miles (or taking 7.6 million cars off the road).

For more information on the study, “What you eat matters,” click here.

UPDATE 08/01/14: Another study agrees with the Environmental Working Group. Scientific American recently reported that “raising beef uses 28 times more land, 11 times more water and six times more fertilizer than the average expenditures for other livestock.” The study added that cows are statistically more draining on the environment than all other animals. For more on the Scientific American article, click here.


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