Fight Global Warming with Your Knife and Fork

Fight Global Warming with Your Knife and Fork

Everything about global warming seems big and overwhelming. Perhaps that’s fitting, considering the dimensions of the problem. A recent U.S. Energy Department report predicts global warming will soon cause more flooding and severe droughts across the Western United States. Many blame it for last year’s deadly summer in Europe, which claimed more than 19,000 lives. Even Hollywood sees the grand scale: Last May, a film from 20th Century Fox filled the big-screen with images of eco-horrors tied to global climactic change.

So how can we as individuals do anything meaningful about such a massive issue? With Earth Day approaching on April 22, the question is particularly timely. The problem is that most of the advice about how to fight global warming revolves around things we do occasionally, if at all: insulate our homes, buy a hybrid car, switch to compact fluorescent bulbs. These are helpful steps that taken together can make a BIG impact.

But what can we do each day that will really make a difference? Look no further than your plate. We can help fight global warming three times a day by making a few simple changes in our eating habits. Eat local. Eat less meat. Eat organic.

Eat Local

Did you know the food you eat travels an average of more than 1,500 miles to reach your plate? Transporting food burns fossil fuels, which create tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases -- the primary cause of global warming. Brian Halweil of Worldwatch found that a typical meal bought from a conventional supermarket chain uses four to 17 times more petroleum for transport than the same meal using local ingredients.

Support your regional economy, beginning with the food you eat. At home in New Rochelle, NY, I relish my weekly visits to the Friday farmer’s market. There Amish farmers sell fresh broccoli, red ripe tomatoes and juicy peaches. Further north my friend Beth has joined a CSA -- Community Supported Agriculture -- to share with others in a local farm’s production for the season. These local alternatives feed the soul as well as the stomach.

Eat Less Meat

We feed more than half the grain grown in the United States to livestock. That greatly compounds the climactic impact of our oil-dependent food system. According to noted ecologist David Pimentel of Cornell University, it takes on average 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of meat protein for human consumption. Grain production requires only about 3.3 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of protein. Large, confined livestock operations also generate vast amounts of manure, which releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 20 times the heat trapping power of carbon dioxide.

Health experts recommend you eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. What better time to start than if you’re concerned about global warming.

Eat Organic

Our industrialized food system -- the collective growing, processing, packaging, shipping and cooking of our food -- accounts for a whopping 17% of the fossil fuel energy we consume as a nation. According to the EPA, the agricultural sector alone generates almost 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Agricultural chemicals -- synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides -- account for more than half of all on-farm energy use. Organic farming uses no synthetic chemicals, greatly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels to produce food. As an added bonus, organic farming significantly cuts emissions of nitrous oxide, which is produced when soils interact with chemical fertilizers. An extremely powerful greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide has 310 times the heat trapping power of CO2.

What’s more, organic farming can actually help undo global warming. Soils farmed using sustainable, organic methods absorb CO2 from the air and lock it into the soil as fertile humus. This makes organic farmland a sink rather than a source of CO2. Paul Hepperly of the Rodale Institute estimates that if all the corn and soy cropland in the nation converted to organic production, some 580 billion pounds of excess CO2 could be captured from the atmosphere and stored in the soil annually.

Our world is heating up and we need to take action. Armed with our knives and forks, we wield a lot more power to affect change than we realize. Be part of the solution, three times a day. Eat local. Eat less meat. Eat organic. Not just because you’ll help fight global warming, but because fresh, locally grown, organic food tastes better, too.

Elysa J. Hammond is the staff ecologist of Clif Bar Inc., a maker of all-natural energy and nutrition foods. In addition to her work at Clif Bar, Hammond is an honorary research associate at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, N.Y., and a member of the Greenhouse Network, a grassroots movement working to stop global warming. She holds a Master of Forest Science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with a specialty in the ecology of food production systems.