How your food choices can reduce your carbon footprint

Apr 20, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Our modern food system has made obtaining food, and a wide variety of foods, undeniably more convenient. But is the environment suffering from the globalization of the food industry?

Woman choosing between meat and salad

The way in which we eat has changed significantly over the past several decades.

Instead of relying on food and livestock that come from our own community, we can find almost any kind of food imaginable neatly packaged at a local supermarket. Sure, it is easier, more convenient and seemingly more affordable, but are we paying for this "convenience" in a much bigger way?

The impact of one burger

When we see ground beef neatly formed into six ounce patties in the meat section of the supermarket, it's hard to connect that product to the animal it came from. As it turns out, even if you make the effort to make that connection, you'd have a pretty difficult time. The average burger contains meat from 50 to 100 cows and from animals that were raised in two to four different countries. Americans eat two burgers per week on average, which amounts to a sampling of literally thousands of steer a year, most of which have traveled great distances to make it onto our backyard grills.

Are you eating additives and pink slime >>

The beef industry is one of the most inefficient and environmentally damaging segments of the food industry, but it does represent a major issue that is present in much of the modern industrial food supply system. A significant amount of the damage to the environment is a direct result of the transportation that is required to get our food from the place it is grown or raised to our dinner plates. According to Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the average food item on our dining table travels an astonishing 1,500 miles to get there.

Eat locally

One way to significantly reduce your carbon footprint is to eat locally grown food whenever possible. Food that is grown and livestock that is raised within your community requires far less fossil fuel energy than food that needs to be transported. Many people who are passionate about eating local food try to stick to food that was grown or raised within a 100 mile radius of their home. While that is ideal, if you are new to the local eating philosophy, start off by making manageable goals. Try buying food from your state, or even your region of the country. Learn what fruit and vegetables are in season in your area and if there are farms near you that raise livestock sustainably.

Learn more about joining a CSA >>

Eat less meat

Putting the issue of eating a single burger that contains meat from dozens of cows aside, this manner of meat production also has a significant impact on the environment. On average, 40 calories of fossil fuel energy go into every calorie of feedlot beef in the U.S. Only 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy go into every calorie of vegetable produced. For example, a half a pound of steak requires over 18 times the fossil fuel energy than a half a pound of asparagus.

If taking meat off your dinner equation sounds daunting, try starting with one vegetarian meal a week. Meatless Monday, an initiative that encourages people to start off the week with healthy and environmentally friendly meat-free alternatives, has been a great starting point for many people.

Get some Meatless Monday meal ideas >>

By making responsible food choices like eating less meat and choosing local foods whenever possible, we as individuals can make a real impact on the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and combating climate change. Don't underestimate the power that you, as a consumer, have in bettering our planet.

More on green living

How to be eco-friendly
How to calculate your carbon footprint
Benefits of eating locally grown food