The Truth About Food Emissions: Does Eating Local Reduce Carbon Footprint?
By Vivian Duncan | Updated on September 14, 2021
Does eating locally reduce the carbon footprint? You may have heard or seen support for an “Eat Local” movement, suggesting that buying local foods from farms and businesses reduces transportation emissions.
Although this is true to a certain extent, the truth is that transportation is not responsible for the largest share of food’s total carbon footprint. When trying to reduce your carbon emissions, it is important to consider every step of the product’s journey to your home, or in this case, from the farm to your fork.
Food Emissions: From Farm to Fork
From the methane produced from manure to the emissions from machinery, the farm plant trees carbon offset. Plus, certain food products require more fertilizer and tilling, and others release emissions on their own. Regardless of the food product, agriculture emits approximately six percent of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions alone.
Some farms have been established by clearing the land of woodlands and forests. This is especially one of the causes of deforestation in various countries around the world. However, the amount of land use required for food products also varies. For example, cattle have a bigger ecological footprint than farmed prawns.
Additionally, the feed for livestock produces CO2 emissions from processing and packaging materials, as well as the energy needed for refrigeration. So, although locally grown food is somewhat better than buying lettuce that comes from another country, the carbon footprint of food is still high.
Only 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions from food are generated by mileage. The remaining 89 percent is created by processing, storage, and other factors.
So why is the “Eat Local” movement so popular? The popularity of reducing your carbon footprint by reducing food miles could be attributed to improving the local economy, eating fresher food, and aiding in the genetic diversity of heirloom varieties. And the bottom line is, it is better to buy local produce because it does make a small difference.
What You Eat vs. Where Your Food Is Made: Which Is Better for the Environment?
The average American’s food emissions are approximately eight tons of CO2 per year, and transportation contributes about five percent of that.1
Choosing what’s best for the planet, requires a combination of considerations. Since every food item requires a different amount of land use, care, packaging, and storage, changing your diet in specific ways can have the biggest impact.
For example, cutting beef (even from one meal a day) can help reduce your carbon emissions. Beef contributes approximately 60 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of beef, largely due to land use and farming practices. This is approximately 150 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than chicken or fish.
Various nuts and citrus fruits are both low in greenhouse gas emissions. And, while some plant-based products such as chocolate, coffee, and palm oil (the use of which is leading to more deforestation), have a significant carbon footprint (contributing over five kilograms of CO2 per kilogram), most plant-based products contribute ten to 50 times fewer carbon emissions than animal-based products.
6 Ways To Reduce Your Food Footprint: Sustainable Options
So, does eating locally reduce your carbon footprint? Absolutely! But there is much more that you can do to reduce your food carbon footprint.
- Change your diet. Most plant-based products naturally have a much lower carbon footprint than animal-based products, which include meat, dairy, and eggs. Read this article for a breakdown of different emissions by diet, including vegan carbon footprint, pescetarian greenhouse gas emissions, and more. Even skipping meats for one meal can help.
- Limit your intake of processed and packaged foods. Unless you grow your own produce (in which case, even the seeds come in packaging), it can be hard to entirely eliminate processed and packaged foods from your diet. The key is to try to eat whole ingredients and cook more from scratch. For example, you can purchase bulk oats, blueberries, and nuts to make your own granola, replacing a box of artificially flavored granola bars, individually wrapped in plastic. Or, buy fruit in bulk and then cut it into serving sizes at home to store in reusable containers. When you shop, keep an eye out for more sustainable packaging (such as recycled cardboard).
- Plan out your meals and research the carbon footprint of your recipes’ ingredients. Not every plant is grown sustainably, and many have more sustainable alternatives that are just as delicious. Research the carbon footprint of your ingredients and see which ones could be swapped out.
- Bring reusable bags to replace plastic bags both in the produce aisle and at checkout.
- Calculate your food carbon emissions and your total CO2 footprint. Even after making these changes toward green eating, food only accounts for ten to 30 percent of a household’s carbon emissions. It is just as important to find ways to reduce your footprint from electricity usage, heating and cooling, and your own personal methods of transportation.
- Purchase a carbon offset. Unless you suddenly decided to give up civilization (and even then, burning wood for heat or cooking still generates CO2) the only way to live carbon neutral is to reduce your carbon footprint wherever you can and offset carbon through various programs.
1Our World Data. United States: What are the country’s annual CO2 emissions? 2021. Web. 16 April 2021. <https://ourworldindata.org/co2/country/united-states?country=~USA#what-are-the-country-s-annual-co2-emissions>.