Three Ways To Reduce the Carbon Footprint of American Food

Most consumers want to buy foods that are good for their wallets, health and the environment. Although switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet may reduce a person’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions, it may be unrealistic or unhealthy for everyone. Now, ACS Environmental Science and Technology researchers report three ways Americans can reduce the carbon footprint of food purchases without drastically changing their eating habits.

Bringing food from farms to people’s tables is an important part of global greenhouse gas emissions. Animals are inefficient at converting the plants they eat into energy, so meat and dairy produce higher emissions than fruits, vegetables, and grains. Based on this knowledge, previous researchers have provided suggestions for changes that individuals or families can make to reduce emissions from food production. However, most of these recommendations are based on the “average American diet.” In fact, not everyone eats the same type or amount of food, so in order to explain this diversity, Hua Cai and his colleagues wanted to evaluate the actual food purchased by American households and determine the carbon emission hotspots in these shopping.

Researchers analyzed the detailed grocery purchase records of more than 57,000 American households in 2010 and increased the greenhouse gas emissions of growing and harvesting food for each household. Packaging and shipping data are not included because the information is not available. They then compared the emissions calculations with the calculations generated when buying food for a healthy and sustainable reference diet.

The team’s analysis showed that 71% of the households surveyed can reduce the carbon footprint of their food, identifying three main ways consumers can do this. Suggestions are:

  • A small family of one or two people must buy less bulk food, which is often more than eaten, and manufacturers must provide cost-effective size packaging.
  • Eliminating high-calorie, low-nutrient foods will reduce total potential emissions by 29% and may also improve health outcomes.
  • People should buy baked goods and prepared foods that are not very tasty. Although the carbon emissions of such foods are relatively low, the large quantities of such foods purchased add up to generate a large amount of emissions.

In short, the researchers said that these strategies are preliminary ways for people to reduce their food-based carbon footprint at home.

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