Amazing ‘Carbon Food Myths’

Food is a climate change issue.

It’s amazing to say those words now and not get the same quizzical looks I got two years ago when I first gave presentations on this subject. More people accept this big idea, but with acceptance is a growing number of odd notions about how the food system does, and does not, contribute to climate change. Here are some of my favorite ‘carbon food myths’ uncovered recently, which I hope will provide readers with some good questions to ask their food providers: 

MYTH #1: Food transported in passenger-plane cargoes maximizes the use of a resource that is already there. This sounds logical at first, but it’s totally false. Food transported in planes of any variety add weight. Weight adds fuel use. Fuel use = carbon emissions. There’s no greater carbon emissions in transportation than that which belches out of airplanes. As consumers and chefs, we need to reduce the demand for products that must be transported long distances overnight and change suppliers’ habits where possible.

MYTH #2: Becoming a vegan is the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with food choices on a consumer level. Our research is showing that a relatively modest change in meat eaters’ food choices would do more to mitigate climate change impacts of food production than if the number of vegans tripled in the U.S. What may be more important than this over the long run, however, is a greater regionalization of meat production so that animal waste can be used as nutrient inputs to crops rather than croplands having to depend on fertilizers and other additives produced thousands of miles away.

MYTH #3: Food miles don’t matter. Yes they do. They may not be the only factor in calculating emissions associated with certain foods, but don’t be fooled. We can’t shorten the distance between two points, but we can increase the environmental responsibility of local production methods, including how food is distributed. Rather than de-emphasizing local food, we have to support its improvement and make it truly more ‘local,’ including where local farms get their inputs (feed and seed). A local cheese whose milk was transported 500 miles isn’t really local food, is it?

Helene S. York, Director, Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation