Here at What’s On Your Plate?, we’re happy to field questions from folks interested in finding out more about issues raised in the film. Recently, Valerie from Miami, FL wrote to us:
I’m the Program Coordinator for an Environmental Center in Miami, FL. We’re having a “You Are What You Eat,” theme at our Center to teach families around the community about eating sustainably. I am creating an exhibit using a large globe that will show families where the ingredients from popular foods that they consume come from. Families will find where the ingredients from their pizza, for instance, come from and how far those foods travel to make it to Miami, FL. This information will translate into energy consumption and how many homes, schools, TVs (or whatever) could be powered if those ingredients were purchased locally. Problem is, I can’t find these statics anywhere! Can anyone point me in the right direction? I really think concrete numbers will drive this point home, and I’m hoping an organization such as yours has the answers. Please help! Thanks so much!
Nate and Mary got around to scouring the internet this afternoon to try and find some answers about how to go about measuring their carbon footprint in the food they eat. Here is what they found:
I decided to profile Brighter Planet.com’s Footprint calculator. There’s a ton of information on their methodology page, and their calculator is really nice and makes a great stab at being comprehensive about your residence, travel and food. Since Valerie asks about food, I’ll just say that this section is made to create a profile for a person’s overall footprint. Instead of asking questions about the specific food you eat, (pizza) instead it asks you to average how much of what types of food (beef, poultry, vegetable, etc.) you eat in a diet profile. It creates calculations that are further outlined here. There’s a lot of concentration on American habits, but rating my consumption based on averaging a population made it hard to feel accurate. Am I eating more than an average amount of fish per day? Less than the average sugar/fats? Hard to know without breaking down an actual profile of the meals I eat regularly. There is another metric which gets closer to getting a more accurate foodprint: what is the percentage of food that you consume that is organic versus standard? Organics generally have a smaller footprint as they are produced without harmful pesticides, and other nasty-to-the-environment practices. There isn’t a metric within the calculator to measure how much locally produced food you consume, but there is an “action” that can help improve your overall score.
Benefits include that you can have multiple diet profiles and apply them to different times during the year. This means that you can potentially watch your footprint change over time. There is a place to checkout and pay money to offset your footprint, although we prefer making lifestyle changes to writing checks. You can also add actions to your footprint which in some cases, reduces the overall carbon profile. I even added making sustainable holiday ornaments and set my schedule to repeat once a year. I like this way to affect your resulting numbers by taking actions.
What I’d like to see is a calculator that asks me what I had for lunch today. I could then say “potato” and detail that I added butter or salt or vegetables. This would help me know about each component of the food I’m eating which helps in the overall examination. Which leads me to say: The calculator IS really good at being comprehensive about your life- I’ve never had a calculator ask me how much kerosene I use, or how many miles I fly on what kind of aircraft. I think overall, Brighter Planet makes great leaps towards making a great calculator, but lacks the right metrics to help find out how far our food is traveling/how much of a carbon footprint is on our plates. We need something more precise.
Unfortunately, getting accurate information on where your food comes from can be a little tough. Most of the bigger companies are a little reluctant to share that kind of information with their customers. I remember calling one company and asking where my milk came from, and they said the cows were “local to my area.” I asked how they knew where I was calling from, and they put me on hold. It isn’t always that the company is trying to hide something from you, more like most companies aren’t used to the idea that people would want to know where their food comes from, so finding things out requires some patience. Strategies range from endless call-transfer loops, to indecipherable laboratory chemist/tax attorney jargon pdf’s, to simply claiming “proprietary information.” I’d suggest doing things the most straightforward and simple way: go to the grocery stores and restaurants and ask where they get their food, then follow the trail right back to the farm. You can do this on the phone, but actually showing up really shows people you’re serious. If you want generalized-type statistics about, say, where the average pizza ingredients come from, I’d actually try googling each ingredient and finding out where they tend to come from.
Wikipedia tells me that most of the world’s tomatoes come from China. Wikipedia isn’t exactly unimpeachable, but it’s a start. If you’re feeling very adventurous, try wading through the corporate websites of some of the major food distributors (I’ve been trying Cargill for the past 20 minutes: nothing so far), though they may not be forthcoming. The thing to remember is that information about where food comes from is most often highly politicized. The big point is that to find out how far your food travels, and how much energy it uses, you’ll need to do some pretty heavy research, and you may run up against some dead ends. But it is completely worth it to try and find out. The more we know about how our food connects us (and disconnects us) with the world, the better perspective we gain on the world around us.
After scratching around today, we’d like to open up to our readers. If there are any great ideas out there internet, we’d like to hear about them in the comments. Let’s brainstorm down in the feedback!