by: Jeff McMahon for Forbes
Consumers have unrealized power to steer the close marriage between agriculture and the climate toward healthier outcomes, according to food-policy activists at the Green Festival in Chicago Saturday.
Agriculture is particularly vulnerable to climate conditions, according to the EPA, but also a major contributor to climate change because of carbon-emitting practices including deforestation, fertilization, transportation, fermentation, irrigation and the burning of crop residues.
Not all farmers, however, participate in all those practices.
“There’s a huge, huge range in methods of food production,” said Lindsay Record, the program director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, during a panel at the sustainability and green-living festival at Chicago’s Navy Pier. “There’s a lot of voting with your fork that you can do.”
Record suggested five steps consumers can take to make sure the food they consume has the smallest possible carbon footprint:
1. “Try to incorporate a greater diversity of small grains that are produced locally or regionally,” she said.
In recent years, American consumers have gained access to locally grown fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses, but grains still tend to be mass produced by large farming operations and shipped across large distances, making them more carbon intensive.
“ Grains is the thing that local farmers are producing less often,” Record said. But “when they have a grain crop in addition, crop rotations can protect soil from carbon loss. It will help sequester atmospheric carbon, which is really important. At the same time it will help to support those small farmers by increasing their bottom line, because they can diversify the products that they have available.”
2. “Eating in season is really a big thing.”
American consumers can enjoy oranges in summer and cherries in winter thanks to international food-distribution systems, but all that shipping means more greenhouse gas released to the atmosphere.
“You might think the idea of eating a strawberry in December or January sounds delicious, but they really don’t taste as good, and they’re shipped from far away. And so by eating fruit in season, you’re reducing your transportation carbon footprint. Regional distribution systems are the most efficient. And that is the best, most efficient way to reduce your carbon footprint.”
3. “Organic does matter,” Record said, not only to the purity of food but to its carbon footprint.
“The synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are made using fossil fuels and fossil fuel derived energy,” she said, “so looking for organic products is one of the things that you can do.”
Some consumers avoid organic products because of the tend to cost more because of the cost of organic certification and because of economies of scale. But the cost of organic food is amortized over time by health-care costs, according to panelist Alisa Gravitz, president and CEO of Green America, an economic advocacy group.
“You can pay the farmer or pay the hospital,” Gravitz said, “and it’s a lot less expensive to pay the farmer now than to pay the hospital later.”
4. “On dairy, meat, and eggs, look for the pasture-raised” certification, Record said, rather than organic or cage-free.
The meat-production industry produces more greenhouse gas than transportation or industry, so the best thing you can do for the climate is become a vegetarian or vegan. But if you can’t kick the meat habit, you can still select meats that do less harm:
“When a farmer is using grass or pasture to raise their animals or livestock, if its managed correctly it can serve as a carbon sink and work to sequester carbon.”
According to Nicole McCann, Green America’s director for food campaigns, “Even an organic egg, if it’s not pasture raised, comes from a factory farm. And ‘cage free’ really means nothing.”
5. “Look for companies that have a commitment to sourcing sustainable ingredients,” Record said. “Or if they make it a policy to give back to sustainable organizations.”
“Chipotle, Amy’s, Lundberg Rice, Clif Bar—all of them are committed to sourcing responsibly and sustainably raised ingredients as well as providing funding to organizations that work to support sustainable farmers,” she said.
Consumers can influence food companies more than they realize, the panelists agreed, because they control the demand-side of the industry. Gravitz suggested emailing food companies, leaving Facebook comments (because others see them), and especially calling their 800-number (because every call costs them money, so they pay attention). Jim Slama, founder of FamilyFarmed.org, said “the key is go to the store and ask for better than they’ve got.”
“It’s really an opportunity to bring more sustainability and responsibility into systems by creating that demand,” Slama said.