Carbon on my plate…?

It all started with those rare dinners with my landlord where – over a bottle of Bordeaux and some cheese – he would lament the end of the Belle Époque of the French industry and its world leadership. In his vehement cursing of the loss of French competitiveness, he shared an anecdote about his friend’s agro-company that commercializes parsley: The harvested vegetables leave the Southeast of France on lorries and cross half of Europe on highways before they reach Poland for packaging. They arrive back to the Hexagon the following night. My first thought was that it is complete nonsense. But apparently, so much cheaper is Polish labor that it is worth doing so. And it is worth doing so because the environmental costs are obviously not internalized. And we wonder why the agricultural sector is such a great contributor to greenhouse gas emissions… But let’s take a look at those figures.

Currently, industrial agriculture accounts for 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions (mainly nitrous-oxide and methane). But it reaches 32% if packaging, processing and transportation are also taken into account – which is why I started this blog piece sort of out of the blue with the anecdote about my landlord. In fact, thanks to (food) trade liberalization, the average distance food travels to consumers increased by 25% in the last 30 years. Between 1968 and 1998 world food production increased by 84%, but world food trade by 184%. One does not have to rely on anecdotal evidence however to find weird examples of food miles: A classical example is that of the German strawberry yoghurt whose ingredients travel a total of 9115 km from Poland to Aachen before arriving to final consumers in Stuttgart. In Melbourne, Australia, the average distance traveled by the 29 most common food items is 70803 km – almost two times the distance around the Earth. In California, a State where agricultural commodities are one of the top exports, the transportation-related impacts of imported agricultural products amounts to 250.000 tons of global warming gases released.

CliMates is a global movement created by ambitious students who want to take their future in their own hands and influence decision-making. And whereas global solutions have to be found to the global problem of climate change, we have to remember that sustainable development is best if build up from a local basis, at the individual’s level.

So there is no way around reflecting on how we can mitigate climate change in our daily life. Paying attention to what we eat and where it comes from is one of the ways. It is a frustrating exercise: Tracing back the origin of products is a time-consuming task (food labeling could help this!) and in some cases locally produced food might have a more important carbon footprint than the imported one because for instance of heavier fertilizer use compensating for the traveled distance. But as a general rule, if you can get food from local producers, you cannot go wrong. And if such a scheme does not exist, set one up! Just like my fellow students who made local producers around Paris come to the university and sell their vegetables every Monday. And even though I have to smell their leek for 2 hours during my evening development class, my environmentally conscious classmates bring a smile on my face.

So stick to local and – for the climate’s sake – eat less meat! Between 1971 and 2010 food production has tripled whereas the population only grew by just 81 %. If current trends continue and people worldwide develop eating habits and regimes similar to that of the Western world, the consequences for the Earth’s climate will be catastrophic.

Apparently, if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet that would be the equivalent of 46 million cars off the road. That is roughly 300 million people. That is also approximately how many Chinese are expected to break out from poverty in the next decade with all what that implies in terms of changing eating habits.

Fighting climate change is also about making small personal sacrifices – if I as a Hungarian-born grown up on beef stew and goulash could make it, anyone can…