Many American’s aren’t aware of it, but the production, processing, and delivery of food has a disastrous impact on our environment—more than any other industry. The energy used to produce and distribute food accounts for roughly 60 percent of the total energy North Americans produce! Out of that 60 percent, more than 85 percent comes from the burning of fossil fuels. This creates greenhouse gases, and subsequently contributes to global warming.
Fast food restaurants are the biggest culprits: the production and consumption of cheeseburgers in one year produces roughly the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as up to 19.6 million SUVs!
So, since food production is the largest energy draw in North America, it’s also the best place for you to start when looking to reduce your carbon footprint.
Un-processed is prime
The first and easiest way to reduce your emissions from food is to reduce the number of steps involved in the production of it. The less processing, the better – not just for your health, but from an environmental standpoint, too. The more processing and refining needed before your food hits your mouth, the more energy has gone into making it.
Many experts say the production of food actually uses more energy than the resulting energy content of the food. One report even suggests that, for every 10 calories of fossil fuel energy burned in food production, only 1 calorie of food is produced!
So if you have a hankering for some good old orange juice, skip the highly processed version and go right to the source – grab an orange!
Animal Based Foods: Eco-sabotage
We all need protein. It’s essential. But protein is the biggest resource hog in the food industry, gobbling up production time, land, water, and energy. That’s because we rely on animal products like meat and milk as our main source of protein, and producing them is a lengthy and energy-consuming process. In fact, one study shows that producing 1kg of beef results in more CO2 emissions than going for a 3 hour drive while leaving all the lights on at home
Let’s break it down: land is used to grow food for a cow, and then pasture land is needed to raise that cow. Add to that the processing, shipping, packaging, and distribution of the resulting product, and you’ve got an enormous amount of industrial energy used. And that’s not considering the methane emitted from millions of pounds of animal waste accumulated in commercial livestock production.
To bring it into perspective, an average meat-eating North American produces 1½ tons more carbon-equivalent emissions per year than a strictly vegetarian person. So that means each time you choose a plant-based meal instead of a meat-containing one, you’re saving energy and resources and lowering your carbon “food”print.
Sustainable Alternatives: Plant-based foods
Since meat and cheese are energy hogs, what we really need is a plant that is an excellent protein source, so the middleman is cut out of the mix and the levels of production are minimized.
Luckily, there are more than a few options.
Hemp is the next up-and-comer. One of nature’s superfoods, it could be dubbed “Earth’s favorite offspring” for its incredible sustainability. Nutritionally and environmentally superior to most plants, its seed is made of 35 percent protein – more than the protein content of both beef and chicken. Hemp’s ability to thrive in both hot and cold climates while growing much faster than most traditional crops makes it one of the most sustainable crops on earth. And since it’s naturally resistant to most pests, it can be grown efficiently without herbicides and pesticides.
Munch on this: a pound of hemp seed would provide all the protein, essential fatty acids, and dietary fiber necessary for human survival for two weeks.
Hemp seed has a mild nutty flavor and can be used in any recipe to add protein and enhance taste. Other ways to eat hemp: hemp milk, hemp flour, hemp seed oil, hemp bread, and hemp nut butter.
Hemp = marijuana? Although hemp and marijuana are in the same class, hemp’s THC quantities are too minute to affect our bodies in the same way.
Chlorella is another utterly amazing plant-based food, and it happens to be Japan’s #1 health supplement. The green single-cell alga contains the most protein, chlorophyll, and nucleic acid out of any organism on the planet. 65% of it consists of protein, including your 10 essential amino acids. It is also rich in essential fatty acids, enzyme, minerals, and vitamins, including the B12 vitamin that many vegetarians miss in their diet.
The best part about chlorella is its sustainability: it is the fastest growing organism on the planet, reproducing 4 times in 24 hours, while requiring very little land usage. With minimal processing needed to convert it to edible form, chlorella is the ultimate energy-saving food.
Other excellent plant-based and eco-friendly foods: seeds (including and especially flax), nuts, lentils, legumes, quinoa. These foods are very easy on the eco-system, especially when you buy the organic option, and are surprisingly versatile in recipes.
My greenfood discovery
As a vegan athlete, I created a nutrition drink called Vega Whole Food Health Optimizer to ensure I could easily get all my essential nutrients into my diet. But because of its plant-based content, it also turned out to be an excellent energy saver: having Vega for breakfast saves 38 times the emissions than having a traditional bacon and eggs breakfast. In a year, that would work out to switching off a 60 watt light bulb for 12,500 hours, or 521 consecutive days.
Although my ingredient choices for Vega were more based on nutritional value (a 240 calorie serving of Vega has many times the nutrient content than an average North American meal), the end result was a lower carbon “food”print thanks to highly raw and organic plant-based ingredients like hemp protein, yellow pea protein, and the Japanese superfood chlorella.
Although we each only make up a miniscule fraction of the world’s population, the biggest positive environmental impact we could make individually is to base our diet on primary-source or plant-based foods. If we keep in mind that our food production is harder on the environment than even all the cars in the world, it’s easy to believe we can significantly reduce our carbon “food”print on this world by the foods we eat.
Brendan Brazier is a professional Ironman triathlete, two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion and bestselling author of “The Thrive Diet”. He is also the creator of the award-winning VEGA line of whole food products.
Brendan’s latest book, The Thrive Diet (Penguin, 2007), includes 100 balanced, plant-based, whole food recipes. www.thrivediet.com
For more information on Vega go to www.myvega.com