Chewing on Food Choices

It's time to choose a low-carb — low-carbon, that is — diet. Your food choices have a surprisingly large impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers have estimated that the average American creates 2.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year by eating, which is actually more than the 2 metric tons each U.S. citizen generates by driving.

Avoiding the big chill

The fewer cooled or frozen foods you buy, the less you contribute to the energy needed to keep all those fridges, freezers, and refrigerated trucks running. When it comes to prepared foods — ready-made meals, pizza, bread dough, pastries, and so on — simply avoid the frozen option. Frozen foods just add to the energy bill.

Sometimes, you need to chill food to prevent spoilage, reduce waste, and avoid extra trips to the store. And in the middle of winter, you may have trouble deciding whether to choose the fresh vegetable trucked from Texas or the local one that was frozen in September. The best option may be to go without your spinach or broccoli in winter, and instead get some local root crops stored without freezing.

Opting for unprocessed

Think of the extra energy it takes to turn apples into applesauce or soybeans into veggie sausages. Processed foods also need much more packaging, which uses energy and adds to solid waste streams. And the processed food you're buying probably isn't locally produced, which means that it had to be transported to you from afar, creating even more emissions.

Buying the raw ingredients for food and making it yourself cuts back on greenhouse gases. As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin), recommends, "Shop at the edges of the grocery store [where they keep the natural food], not the middle."

Fresh and unprocessed foods are healthier for you, containing less salt, sugar, and mysterious chemical ingredients that no one can pronounce.

Bottled water: All wet

Bottled water is an environmental disaster. It's taken from sources hundreds and often thousands of miles away from where people will consume it, requiring enormous energy expenditures for shipping and removing the resource from its natural setting. It adds billions of bottles to the solid waste stream every year — 40 million a day, for example, in the U.S. alone. And its health benefits are questionable, to say the least: The water coming out of the tap in your municipality has been treated to meet far higher standards.

If you don't like the taste of chlorine in treated water, use a filter system. Also, if you live in an older part of your community, ask local water officials about testing your supply for lead, which was used in older supply pipes. You may need to have those pipes replaced.

Minimizing meat

If everyone in the developed world gave up meat from cud-chewing animals, such as beef and sheep, they would do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than giving up their cars, some research says. No wonder experts recommend eating less meat to help reduce greenhouse gases.

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Even without going vegetarian, reducing intake can help. The average person needs only between 50 and 100 grams of protein a day, depending on his or her weight and activity level. You can get that from a range of foods, including fish and chicken (both easier on the environment than beef), eggs, tofu, beans, and nuts.

When choosing fish, do careful research to ensure it was harvested by using practices that support sustainability.

Here are a couple tips to help you move to a greenhouse gas-reduced diet:

l Take a day or more each week off from meat. Some of the world's tastiest cuisines use little or no meat. Explore vegetarian cookbooks (we recommend Vegetarian Cooking For Dummies, by Suzanne Havala [Wiley]) and vegetarian-cooking Web sites for ideas.

l Choose wild or pastured meat over meat from animals in feedlots. In feedlots, the animals are forced to consume huge quantities of grain. Raising organic beef on grass rather than feed involves 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and consumes 85 percent less energy. You can find grass-fed beef, as well as bison, in some markets (renowned climate advisor Louise Comeau makes a mean bison chili). Get game such as venison, moose, and caribou if you can find them available locally.

Buying local produce

You're probably used to finding fresh vegetables and fruits all year long, shipped from around the globe. But food that comes from close to home is so much better — it doesn't need to be transported, it helps local food producers, and it's higher in nutrients.

When you're grocery shopping, find out where the produce was grown and try to stick to nearby suppliers. Better yet, get your food directly from the source: Many cities and towns have farmers' markets, often on weekends, where you can get locally grown food that's guaranteed to knock your taste buds away. Check out great resources online for The 100 Mile Diet (www.100milediet.org) — all about the benefits of eating locally grown and produced foods.

Food isn't the only thing you can buy from a local source to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. Out-of-season flowers are shipped by air or grown in greenhouses. Stick to what's in season and field-grown locally (you can find plenty at farmers' markets). During the winter, consider using dried plants and flowers, and other decorations from local sources. In spring and summer, opt for potted flowers.

Of course, eating locally is carbon-low only if you buy in season. Local food grown out of season in energy-intensive greenhouses may be worse for the environment than food that's shipped from elsewhere, recent research has found.

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Choosing organic

The big O: Organic foods. Because they're grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizers, they're arguably better for the stability and health of the land than non-organic foods.

Healthy soil is especially important because earth is a major carbon sink. (Refer to Chapter 2 for more about carbon sinks.)

Organic practices are spreading, but getting certified takes time and money that can present a barrier to smaller local farmers. You may face an uncertain choice between shipped organic food and local non-organic food. Overall, a local and non-organic product will usually have less of an impact on greenhouse gas emissions than a non-local and organic one.

Wine over the waves

Not all products from afar need to arrive with a high carbon price tag. For example, bottles with a Sail Wine logo may soon be coming to a liquor store near you. For the first time in 150 years, French wines are being shipped under sail. Ireland is the first market for these wines, but at the time we wrote, the Compagnie de Transport Maritime a la Voile plans to add

England, Belgium, Canada, and Sweden as destinations. Shipping on a sailboat has almost zero emissions, and the shippers claim that the wine only gets better the longer it's at sea! Eventually, this fleet of sailboats plans to transport other goods, as well, in addition to offering a few luxurious berths for merchants who want to travel with their wares.

You also may be able to go to a comprehensive, sustainable local food chain. In Canada, for example, the Local Food Plus (LFP) initiative brings together economic, social, and environmental considerations, and rewards local farmers (both conventional and organic) who use ecological practices. Local food networks exist in many places on a much more . . . well, local level. Often, communities and regions have their own local food network that can help you figure out where to buy local foods.

Cooking up fewer greenhouse gases

Energy-wasteful kitchen practices can undo even the most carbon-friendly food choices. A major food-services company has estimated that people can correct energy losses of up to 30 percent in home or commercial kitchens for very low cost.

To run a more energy-efficient kitchen, do the following:

i Keep a lid on it! Research has shown that the simple act of using a saucepan lid reduces energy used for simmering by a factor of five.

i Less is more. Use the smallest pot and least amount of water needed for what you're boiling.

I Size your appliances to your lifestyle. If you're on your own, you don't need a huge oven to heat a single-serving meal.

I Use a toaster oven or a microwave. They take a fraction of the energy of a conventional stove or oven to get the same results. And in the summer, not having to turn the stove or oven on helps keep the kitchen from heating up.

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