Want to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint? Think Food.

Transportation choices such as car vs. subway have a big effect on carbon footprint, but experts say food choices have nearly as much impact.
Transportation choices such as car vs. subway have a big effect on carbon footprint, but experts say food choices have nearly as much impact. (By Ramin Talaie -- Bloomberg News)
By Katherine Salant
Saturday, November 29, 2008

In moving for a year to New York City from Ann Arbor, Mich., a small Midwestern college town, the biggest change for me has not been the shift from a house to a high-rise and a living space that is only one-third as big.

It is the absence of a car.

The difference was apparent the first day. As in previous moves, settling in included many trips to the hardware store for this and that. But this time it was not a simple matter of getting directions and driving there. It was confronting a subway system with 26 different lines. And, after reaching Home Depot and making my purchases, I had to figure out how to get them home. (I learned that most stores in Manhattan offer delivery services for a fee.)

Even the most mundane details of daily life, including meal planning, have changed. In Michigan I had the luxury of "last-minute cuisine," routinely making a dinner plan at 6 p.m., heading for the grocery store that is a three-minute drive from my house, grabbing a few things and returning home, all inside of 20 minutes. Here the grocery store is a 15-minute walk from our apartment building. The return trip is longer because I am lugging my purchases in a wire shopping cart. With each grocery outing taking at least 40 minutes, I plan ahead and shop for groceries only once or twice a week.

Traveling by subway has not proven to be a timesaver, but the time is allocated differently. On a 60-minute car trip you can while away the time by listening to the radio or music. On a subway you can read. The rush hour is still stressful, but the defensive maneuvers are different. Sandwiched into a subway car, you have to be watchful of backpack-wearing riders who never seem to realize how often their backpacks whack other passengers.

As I adjusted, I thought there was at least one upside. My new lifestyle would be more benign for the planet. Surely, by not driving and by living in a much smaller space, I had significantly reduced my ecological footprint, a measurement of how much of the earth's resources each of the world's 6.6 billion people are using.

I turned to the Global Footprint Network's "Personal Footprint" calculator (http://www.footprintnetwork.org) to check. To remind Web site visitors in a not-so-subtle way that most people in developed nations lead a profligate lifestyle, the calculator expresses the amount of resources an individual uses in numbers of planets. For example, if everyone assumed the lifestyle of a typical American, we would need 5.2 earths.

My own results were discouraging. Excising a car and embracing apartment living reduced my footprint by only six-tenths of a planet, compared with my life in Ann Arbor. And, at 5.1 planets, that was only marginally more benign than the score of the average American. When I also excised air travel, my New York footprint went down by an entire planet to 4.1.

Dismayed, I consulted Justin Kitzes of the Global Footprint Network, who helped design the calculator and recently updated it. There was no mistake. "Big changes in your own life may only make a small dent in your footprint," he said. "What you eat and buy has almost as big an effect on your footprint as mobility and shelter."

Elaborating on Kitzes's disconcerting message, Greg Searle of BioRegional North America, a nonprofit that encourages commercially viable low-impact development, said that to reach true sustainability, or what he calls "one planet living," we need to change the way we conceptualize communities and extend our purview beyond shelter, transportation and the workplace to include food, the other essential for human survival.

The average American consumes nearly as many resources meeting food needs as he does for shelter; compared with transportation, food needs consume two-thirds as much, Searle said. The food-related resources include not only the fuel used to transport food across the country, but also the "hidden" energy consumed in the manufacture of fertilizers used to grow the crops and the fuel used to power farm machinery.

A big chunk of this "food-related energy" can be reduced when food is locally grown with non-fossil-fuel based, organic fertilizers, Searle said. This could become a common practice if food needs were factored into the planning of new communities and productive farmland was set aside instead of being converted into areas for buildings, streets and parks. This approach would also require that the professionals who create new communities -- land planners, architects, home builders, land developers and civil engineers -- bring additional expertise to the table, such as farmers and agricultural engineers.

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