Q: What's the best way to reduce my carbon footprint through my diet?
A: As a friend, I should tell you that you're looking a little bloated these days. We all are. When researchers measured the greenhouse gases that are swallowed up in the average Canadian household's diet, our annual food-related GHG emissions were almost twice that of our driving habit!
That's saying a lot, considering the abysmal fuel efficiency of North American cars.
Now, just imagine if Jenny Craig were an environmentalist. Instead of handing out frozen calorie-restricted Chicken Kievs to weight-watching individuals, an army of earth-friendly counsellors would advise us on getting our greenhouse gases down to a trim size 4, metaphorically speaking.
So how do we take the weight off? Turns out counting the carbon footprints of food items is a lot trickier than counting calories. Hidden carbon calories are lurking at every turn. When one UK crisps maker wanted to reduce its carbon footprint, it was advised to use potatoes with less moisture content so they'd be lighter to transport and faster to fry. Who'd have thunk it?
The precise conditions under which your food was grown, processed and sent to you varies from farm to farm, factory to factory and fruit cup to fruit cup.
Yes, eating locally grown food is an important start, so a breakfast of Ethiopian coffee with a teaspoon of imported cane sugar and a tropical fruit salad will be way more fattening, climate-change-wise, than a bowl of Canadian steel-cut oats with a local sliced-up apple.
Of course, the dirtiness of the diesel truck that brought you the apple could theoretically put it behind a mango shipped in a modern, more fuel-efficient boat (although shipping is a grimy, fuel-heavy business).
But food miles only contribute anywhere from 2 to 11 per cent of your meal's total greenhouse fat. If that local cuke was grown in a hothouse mid-January, then its footprint is probably larger than the field-grown one from California.
So eating regional food seasonally is key.
Add a strip of meat to that meal, though, and it won't just be cholesterol making your heart skip a beat. Livestock produce more greenhouse gases than all the world's cars, trucks, planes, ships and trains combined. But cows are the real bad boys.
Grill up four half-pound steaks and you might as well get in your compact car and drive 250 kilometres (while leaving the lights on at home for 20 days straight), according to Japan's National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science.
The Worldwatch Institute says grass-fed cows produce 40 per cent less GHGs, but a University of Manitoba study concluded just the opposite. Either way, if North Americans ate one less meat meal a week, as the head of the UN advisory panel on climate change is asking us to, it would be the equivalent of a mass shift from driving sedans to Priuses.
Sadly, cooped-up battery-caged chickens have a much smaller greenhouse footprint, even smaller than free-range organic chickens, which tells you not all things low-carb(on) are truly ecologically and ethically sound.
Organic grains and produce are, for the most part, a different story. Fossil-fuel-based fertilizers are seriously greenhouse-gas-heavy, so cutting them out means organic wheat or canola, for instance, produce 77 per cent less GHGs and use 39 per cent less energy.
Not that vegetarians should assume they're holier than thou - dairy's another major carbon source. Vegans are the only ones with bragging rights in this game, especially if they eat produce grown on veganic manure-free farms - no joke - and minimize their munching on heavily processed soy proteins, aka fake meat.
If you skip the individually packaged and frozen options (sorry, Jenny Craig), you'll drop another carbon notch on your belt. Stop buying more food than you need so that you don't end up tossing up to 30 per cent of it (like most North Americans) and you'll soon turn into a climate-friendly champion.
The Japanese and Brits are actually bringing in carbon labels on hundreds of food items to make it easier for consumers to figure all of this out. And while there are rumours that Loblaws is considering the same idea, I wouldn't hold my fork.
But you can get a rough idea of how many carbon calories are hidden in your side salad or chicken tenders at the animated interactive site eatlowcarbon.com.