Can’t stand the heat? Get into the kitchen

FF9B Neff squash
Roni Neff, research and policy director at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says choosing the right amount of food can be tricky. Buying and cooking enough for a few meals saves time and energy, but buying too much leads to waste. About 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. is never eaten. 

Credit: Jon Miller/Homelands Productions

As the year draws to a close, those who celebrate Christmas may be looking forward to breaking bread with family and thinking about what to cook. Those who celebrate Hanukkah probably already did that (except for my family, which will celebrate in January because we couldn’t get our schedules synched up in December). Regardless of your background, the holidays often bring a little time off and a little space for mulling our own fortunes and the world’s many miracles. And as the new year approaches, many of us turn to thoughts of making a fresh start and resolving to better match our behaviors with our values.

While climate change is never too far from my mind, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I’ve been thinking about it even more as a direct force in my life and especially the lives of my children. As the director of research and policy at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where we study the intersections of food systems and public health, I think a lot about the connections between what we eat and how we’re messing up the planet. Agriculture and the food system play a huge role in climate change – they’re far more important than most of us recognize. Because of that, choosing what to put on my table and on my own plate is a powerful act.

I recognize that no single meal I eat will have a huge impact on climate change (the big money is on policy change and industry change), but small acts do add up. For example, if every American participated in Meatless and Cheeseless Mondays for a year, the impact would be as great as if we as a country drove 91 billion fewer miles. Further, I believe that if I want government and industry to do their part, I also have to do mine. So how will my meals put a stake in the ground for a more resilient planet? I don’t want to say I’ll do more with less, because it’s not about doing less. For me, it’s about doing more with something different.

There are many lists and summaries of how we can eat better to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (for example, see this, this, this and this). Each of these takes a different angle, and all are jointly helpful in getting the big picture of how we can reduce our food-related greenhouse gas emissions. For those just starting out with this, I wanted to shrink and summarize the list even further.

I would suggest focusing on the four changes below. Other than working for change in policy and business, these four top the list of impactful changes.

  1. Eat less meat. Red meats like lamb and beef are some of the biggest culprits in the production of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Cheese is also high on the list. We don’t all need to become vegetarians (though it wouldn't hurt), but we can make a big difference by cutting back significantly on meat, especially red meat. And when we do eat meat, try to make it a contributor to a dish, rather than a big slab on a plate. Another strategy is participating in Meatless Monday (this website also has a great list of recipes to get your ideas flowing).
  2. Waste less food. Since we were kids, we’ve been told to waste less food. It may or may not help starving children in other countries, but it definitely matters for the environment. Every greenhouse gas emission that went into producing and storing that food you waste never needed to have been emitted. Not only that, but the food decomposing in landfills is emitting methane, a worse offender than carbon dioxide. It is shocking that we in the U.S. waste about 40 percent of all the food that’s produced. As the holidays roll around and we think of entertaining, this can be tough – many of us come from traditions in which running out of food would be the worst possible thing. We end up buying too much, trying to do justice to the leftovers and then composting the last remains when they are no longer edible. Thoughtful planning helps. So does making food we like, so leftovers are a pleasure and not a burden.
  3. Reduce food-related energy use. I’m not talking about eating in the dark. Generally, consumers don’t get information about how much energy is used in producing the foods we like to eat. We can’t even assume that because it was grown locally, it took less energy to get it to us. But we do know that among the top energy-intensive foods is red meat (yes, meat again). Another energy hog is any food that’s been air freighted. Again, we usually don’t get to find out what those are, but if it’s out-of-season produce that’s highly perishable, there’s a particular likelihood. Processing is another part of the food system that takes a lot of energy, so eating whole foods is preferable. Finally, our own energy use actually makes up a significant part of food greenhouse gases – so consider Energy Star appliances, hybrid vehicles, a bicycle, fewer trips to the store, etc.
  4. Help build a more resilient food system that can better withstand what climate change will throw at it. We can try to be aware of who’s selling the food we buy. We’re facing down not only climate change, but also peak oil, water shortages and soil depletion, and when all these forces converge, our current industrial food system is going to be in a great deal of trouble. So one part of buying climate-friendly is buying foods that help create a more resilient food system. That means buying food that was produced in environmentally sustainable ways. Further, if we can buy food from sources like farmers markets, that helps shore up our local and regional food systems, which we’re likely to need in the future.

After Hurricane Sandy (as after so many disasters), it has been really heartening to see people come together and help dig each other out. I wonder what it would take for us to dig each other out before the disasters. What would it take for us to see that doing our part against climate change makes it more likely that someone, someday will be spared the pain in the first place?

Eating climate-friendly meals, and talking about what we’re doing and why, can help spur us to think about the big picture. It may start at the table, but it doesn’t stop there. Ideally, we’ll all be involved with our elected officials and the truly big impact they can have, through food systems, on climate change. 

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