Monday, April 16, 2018

How the Food Industry is Contributing to Climate Change

(There is an old saying, "You Are What You Eat."  It might be worth recalling as you read this thought-provoking piece by Emily Folk.)

The food industry is a massive beast, despite there being food deserts, shortages and famines all over the globe. And that fact isn’t going to change any time soon. There are various aspects to the food industry that are contributing to climate change, and although not all of them stem directly from the industry’s rules and regulations, they do stem from the way we view food, especially in developed countries.

No matter which way you look at it, the food industry is impacting climate change. Everyone from small farmers to international fast-food chains is creating an uneven supply and demand that changes the way we view food, the way we eat it, and the impact it has on our lives. Worldwide, the agriculture industry produces about a third of our greenhouse gases. There are other ways to eat. Start by thinking about your food habits, and move forward from there. 


At some point, food has to be made. The management of that land, however, leaves much to be desired. Now, we know better than to completely deplete the soil, but we have yet to start looking much at long-term impacts.

Chemical companies and large farms have some of the largest impacts on our planet. Swaths of land, hundreds of acres at a time, are converted over to monocrops. Then the soil is tilled, planted, grown and harvested. Each one of those steps uses fossil fuels and contributes significantly to greenhouse gases.  

In developed countries, industrial farms produce the majority of the food. This makes sense because there is ample demand for easy access to food, and the means to get it there. In developing countries, small farms produce the most food. Again, this makes sense based on the economic situation of the area. Small farms have several advantages over larger farms. They are easier to manage without synthetic pesticides, they require less land to for clearing, they help protect the local biodiversity and the transportation is minimal.

Industrialized farms require synthetic pesticides due to their scale, and that means they are the biggest proponents of pesticide and insecticide manufactures. Those industries produce greenhouse gases that are often never taken into consideration for the agriculture industry.

The meat industry also produces plenty of greenhouse gases. The cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens that we raise on land all have to be fed, cared for, butchered and transported, just like the plants and many similar problems prevail. Animal agriculture is reported to contribute between 14-18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. 


The transportation industry has its own category under the EPA, so it’s a bit difficult to determine precisely what the impact is. They list the entire industry as contributing 27 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, easily the largest individual sector. However, some studies have attempted to take a look and estimate the impacts. 

In this instance, it’s impossible to talk about transportation while ignoring animal welfare. Animals raised for food are treated as pets, of course, but transport can be one of the more difficult parts of their lives. Moving them takes a toll on their health. It can lower immunity, cause severe stress and result in dehydration for the animals. 

Even when not transporting live animals, there are still numerous issues. The meat itself has to be transported, often halfway across the country. Unlike most other countries in the world, the U.S. is massive. The U.S., Canada, Australia and China are the largest individual countries in the world, with Australia being the only one to be both a country and an entire continent. 

In many developed areas, trains are a popular mode of transportation. Not so in the U.S., where most meats are still transported either by truck or plane. Both of those require refrigeration for the haul, increasing the use of fossil fuels above and beyond that of typical trucking. Many crops need cooling for transport as well. You certainly aren’t going to get ripe-looking strawberries if they’ve been driven through summer heat for the past two days. And that leads us to food waste.


People in developed areas have a particular idea of what they want their food to look like. We want it to look like we just picked it ourselves, not that it was shipped from a different continent to our local supermarket. Decaying food is a serious contributor to greenhouse gases. The average American tosses about 1,200 calories worth of food daily over the course of a year. That’s more than some people get to eat every day!

That waste means that all the fossil fuels used and greenhouse gases released were for nothing. And to top it off, the food you tossed contributed its own gasses to climate change. It has to stop. Food has to change, slow down and get closer. Otherwise, we’ll cook our planet before we can finish our dinner.


Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger, covering topics in conservation, sustainability and renewable energy. To see her latest posts, check out her blog Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter!

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