Dear Dot: Which Is Worse for the Planet — Food Miles or Food Waste?

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Dear Dot, 

My eldest child signed up for Misfits Market, hoping to help reduce food waste. They were surprised to see items like strawberries and avocados on the list of available items, given that they live in New York State. One wonders whether the negative environmental impact of packaging and shipping misshapen produce around the country might outweigh the benefits of keeping those items out of landfill? 

 —Laura

The Short Answer: Food miles, a study published in Nature tells us, are responsible for three billion tons of carbon emissions globally each year — about 19 percent of total food system emissions. The larger problem, says another study also published in Nature, is food waste, which causes approximately half of the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by global food systems. And so, Laura, the short answer to your question is that letting food (misfit or otherwise) go to waste is worse for the environment than shipping it long distances. 

Dear Laura,

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In 1986, Dot had a roommate named Scott. Scott loved beer. He adored cigarettes. He delighted in food that came wrapped in cellophane and could be microwaved in three to five minutes. But every now and again, Scott would resolve to clean up his act. Out would go the processed foods and the beer (never the cigarettes). Scott would head to the farmers market and return home, his arms full of lettuce and zucchini and peppers. Somewhere between three weeks and three months later, we roommates would tire of a smelly fridge and empty the rotting lettuce and zucchini and peppers from our crisper. 

Virtuous Scott was only ever an idea, not a reality.

A lot of us are Scotts. We resolve that this week we are going to subsist on salads and veggie soups and nut-and-seed-filled breads, but our virtuous Scottness gives way to tired and cranky Scottness. We just want steak. And fried cheese. And so the best-intentions purchases made by our aspirational selves end up as compost, or worse, trash.

But we individual Scotts are not the worst culprits of the food waste world. That would be the system itself, which is so inefficient that roughly a third of the food produced never makes it to a market where our aspirational selves can buy it (and then let it rot). 

So let’s tease out your question, Laura, which essentially boils down to this: Which is the greater eco-sin: To transport food many miles to be consumed? Or to fail to have it consumed at all, leaving it to rot? 

In order to answer that question, we are going to have to crunch some numbers. For instance, one-third of the world’s food is never eaten. In the U.S., 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is never eaten

When food rots, it releases methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas that can trap 120 times more heat than carbon emissions. What’s more, as Project Drawdown explains, “When food is wasted, all the energy, resources, and money that went into producing, processing, packaging, and transporting it are wasted, too.” So it isn’t just the methane emissions harming the environment, but the wasted resources and energy that went into producing the rotting food. 

Why doesn’t food get to the people who want it? There are lots of reasons, that vary depending in part on geography. Lack of refrigeration is a big issue in some developing countries, as well as the amount of time it takes to get food to market. Project Drawdown notes that, “In lower-income countries, improving infrastructure for storage, processing, and transportation is essential. In higher-income regions, major interventions are needed at the retail and consumer levels.” In other words, the wealthier the country, the more the corporations and consumers are to blame. 

But … we’re starting to get it. We’re realizing that ugly food tastes as good as pretty food. We’re learning how to properly store food. We’re using up the entirety of ingredients. We’re cooking with formerly unloved foods.

And players like Misfits Market, or apps like Too Good to Go are doing their thing connecting consumers with excess food that would otherwise go to waste. 

But let’s get to the other part of the equation. It’s all well and good that the food waste is being addressed — though there remains room for improvement — but what about all the carbon emissions from trekking that yummy California strawberry to, say, Newfoundland? Surely that’s not good.

Well, no, not good, but also, perhaps surprisingly, less bad. (Though let’s pause here to note that less impactful is not the same as zero impact.)

According to a story in Yale Climate Connections, “Experts largely agree also that some aspects of food waste that many folks think are among the biggest culprits in climate change are not. For example, transportation emissions — from those “food miles” local farms and consumers say they can avoid — are often better minimized by the efficiency of big industrial deliveries.” 

Those food miles, a study published in Nature tells us, are responsible for three billion tons of carbon emissions globally each year — about 19 percent of total food system emissions. Again, 19 percent is not zero. So the carrot you pick from your backyard or community garden, or the produce you pick up from a nearby farmers market or roadside stand is preferable. Local, the study concluded, is part of tackling emissions from our plates. 

The larger problem, says another study also published in Nature, is indeed food waste, which causes approximately half of the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by global food systems. 

(If you want to get into the nitty gritty of our food systems’ contribution to climate change, Project Drawdown just launched an ambitious blueprint to address what we can change.) 

And so, Laura, the short answer to your question is that letting food (misfit or otherwise) go to waste is worse for the environment than shipping it long distances. 

But before we consider this settled, any conversation around the carbon emissions of food must include what we put on our plates, not just where it comes from or what happens to our leftovers.

To wit, we must move toward a local, plant-based diet, concludes the Nature study. Indeed, shifting toward a plant-based diet is a powerful climate action that’s accessible to all of us — and not only cuts our food costs, but, according to Harvard Medical School, “is well associated with a lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and death from any cause.”

Please note, Laura, that you needn’t completely give up meat (though, if you chose to, the cows — and the trees — offer up their gratitude). Rather, a plant-based diet is one that prioritizes plants. The folks at Harvard again offer up some options for you. 

Gen Z is leading the way with their flexitarian approach to food, defined by the Cleveland Clinic as “a cross between full vegan and vegetarian with the ability to enjoy animal products every so often.”

I think even Scott would agree that sounds possible. Easy, even. No fridge cleaning required.

Flexitarianly,

Dot

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