Food Journeys

Car Busters 36, Nov 2008 - Feb 2009

Dear Anna
Food is a major pleaseure in life. I want to eat well and also cut the food miles and climate change emissions associated with my diet. What can you suggest?

Dear Foody
Going to buy a weekly food shop is one reason people justify car ownership due to carrying loads. But, if it's the only reason, massive savings could be released by walking there and taking a taxi back and/or home delivery instead. Besides, a weekly shop is a car based concept. Car free people shop regularly- perhaps every other day and locally.

Top places to get food are home grown, barter with friends/allotment sales, local farms, farmers markets, organic box schemes and community run shops. Also prepare it yourself, rather than buying processed food. Worst places are huge supermarkets due to overpackaging and long distance supply chains. Avoid processed meat or ready meals. Read labels regarding place of origin and eat the seasonally abundant foods.

Walk or cycle to shop, or go by public transport and choose the nearest outlet. Take reusable carrying bags (ideally a backpack or a shopping trolley). Home delivery saves overall miles travelled if people would otherwise have driven as a van does a round trip of customers. If you do have to drive, then car share. As to lunches at work, packing sandwiches is greener than eating in the canteen or going out for food.

Of all of our spending, food has the greatest climate change impact. Fortunately it's an area about which readers of this magazine have considerable personal choice. Someone living solely on fruit and vegetables grown in their own allotment creates negligible food miles or emissions. We know that due to global agro-business, food travels incredible distances to dinner tables - they are moveable feasts! On average, in every calorie of food nowadays there is 10 calories of energy because as so much of its production, storage and transport uses fossil energy - totally unsustainable. Think also about quantities water needed for certain foods (water miles) and kitchen appliances (appliance miles) plus cooking energy costs.

I'm giving tips to cut not just travelling distance, but the total impact on the climate of energy in agriculture, fertilizers, food transport, processing, storage, shops and catering, plus methane and nitrous oxide from animals, animal wastes and agricultural soil.

Much of this is from George Marshall's book Carbon Detox, in which he introduces the "carbo" - a kilo of carbon dioxide equivalent. For instance, methane, with 23 times the climate impact of carbon dioxide is 23 carbos.

To work out your own food carbon score, if you are an average person in the GB with 38% animal based nutrition, start with 2000 carbos. Adjust up or down as needed eg a 50% animal based diet is 2250 and a light meat diet is 1,750.

1) Eat Organic. Nitrous oxides produced when nitrogen-based fertilisers break down have 310 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. This accounts for 450 carbos. So halve your score for the relevant proportion of food that is organic.

2) Eat much less meat - provided you don't buy vegetarian food that is flown in out of season or highly processed. This saves 500 carbos or 1000 for vegans. Note that scores increases by 40 if you buy air freight fish or vegetables once every month.

3) Avoid lamb and beef which have four times the carbos of pork and eight times that of chicken - due to methane. A cow produces 120kg of methane, the equivalent of driving a car 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) a year. Deduct 200

4) Avoid processed or imported food. Deduct 400 carbos

5) If you eat all leftovers and never throw away edible food deduct 10%

6) Compost all of your food waste and deduct 200 carbos.

7) Eat out and takeaway less and deduct 100 carbos.

Road transportation of food accounts for 240 carbos each on average and air freight is 30 carbos, but could be far higher for some people.

With regard to cooking and preparation, either eat more raw or chop into small pieces before cooking. Quick frying takes less fuel than oven cooking. Cook in quantity and invite neighbours to share meals. Compost your waste and recycle packages. Also use fridges/freezers with an efficient energy rating.

We can all cut our food's carbon footprint and eat fresher. Growing more ourselves and reducing carbon embedded in our diet aids resilience to food shortages due to peak oil. Totnes, a Transition Town, have planted many walnut trees as a future crop. They've also got a garden swap scheme. This is where people with land who can't or don't want to grow food on it, can lend it to others who do. Now I'm off to my shared allotment for blackberries.

Anna Semlyen wrote Cutting Your Car Use We are actively looking for publishers and authors in other countries (except North America). Email

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