Sustainability, Energy and Environment Community

University of Colorado Boulder

 Food

eat mostly plants, waste less

Enjoying food that’s better for you and the planet is one of the most powerful actions an individual can take to slow climate change.

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My food footprint

Portrait of Simon Pendleton

Simon Pendleton

Graduate Student

As a graduate student and an avid cyclist, food is central to my daily routine. However, as a researcher of past and present climate, the impacts of my food choices have become strikingly clear in recent years. Understanding the carbon footprint of different aspects of the food industry (NRDC - PDF file) helps me to make choices to reduce my own individual impact on climate change.

First and foremost: less meat, more plants! I am by no means a vegetarian, but the carbon impact of red meat, for example, far outweighs any desire I may have for a steak (not to mention other environmental impacts of meat production). If I do purchase meat, chicken is my go to, which has a significantly lower carbon footprint per serving (though still higher than other, plant-based sources of protein). Other positive outcomes of eating less meat include lower risk of coronary disease and colorectal cancer and a lower grocery bill!

Aside from occasional meat, >90% of my diet is comprised of plant-based products. Although the carbon impact of vegetables is significantly lower than for meat produced in America, buying more vegetables is just the start. I also try to buy locally sourced produce in order to combat the carbon impact of transporting vegetables from farther away (do you know where your avocados you put on toast come from?). Lastly, when making purchases in the grocery store I try to buy as much as I can in bulk to save on packaging, or buy products with packaging that I can recycle, reuse, or compost.

While the choices we make in the grocery store are important, what we do with food products after we are done with them (leftovers, scraps etc.) is equally important. Greater than 50% of typical municipal garbage is actually compostable (ISLR - PDF file), and all that organic material ends up in landfills where it decomposes and produces methane. However, properly managed composting of all this organic material can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide a whole new industry with significant benefits for the climate and the environment.

Using a climate-aware perspective when making our food choices is not only healthier for us, easier on our wallets, but also has a large impact on the carbon impact of our food and a cascade of other environmental benefits.


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