It takes 17 percent of the fossil fuel consumed in the United States to produce the food we eat. The result is three-quarters of a ton of carbon dioxide emissions per person, according to researchers at the University of Chicago. And that doesn't account for the fuel it takes to get the products to market. Food travels an average 1,500 miles before it's bought and eaten. Even carbon-friendly organic food comes with an emissions price tag—the CO 2 given off by processing, packaging, and transportation. As organic food becomes mass-produced, there's increasing debate about whether the movement is losing its soul and its ethic of sustainability. Whatever the upside of big organic, there's no question that eating locally grown foods and shopping at your farmers' market help reduce CO 2 emissions by cutting down on transport.
Whether you're a carnivore or herbivore also has CO 2 consequences. We don't blame you for enjoying the occasional filet mignon. But the average meat eater causes a ton and a half more carbon dioxide emissions for food production than the average vegetarian. Like it or not, your diet can have just as much effect on your carbon emissions as your choice of car. It's like the difference between a Camry, say, and a Prius.
Changes in agricultural practices could reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by one-fifth, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. But until farmers, lobbyists, and Congress get their act together, here are a few things you can do to eat a little greener:
• Buy locally grown food—at the farmers' market and in the grocery store. Read labels, especially on produce, to find out where your food is coming from. If you don't see much that's local and you're feeling bold, ask your grocer to stock more produce from the region. (Click here to find a farmers' market near you.)
• Buy organic food. Producing it puts less CO2 into the atmosphere than producing conventional food does.
• Avoid processed foods, which use up more energy in production than fresh foods and meals you prepare yourself. The average premade meal includes ingredients from at least five different countries.
• Cut back on the amount of meat that you eat—especially beef. Meat production is energy-intensive.
• Make an effort to buy food that comes with minimal packaging and therefore requires less energy to produce. Side benefit: less trash.
• Plant your own garden. No yard? Try indoor pots. Even in winter you'll have fresh herbs within arm's reach.
(Click here to launch this week's action quiz.)