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5 Ways Your Diet Is Causing Global Warming

“As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act,” President Obama said in his recent speech at Georgetown University about his plans to reign in climate change. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

He rattled off stunning statistics: The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. The cost of weather-related disasters in the U.S. exceeded $110 billion last year. Sea levels in Manhattan are already a foot higher than they were a century ago, which is why Hurricane Sandy left “large parts of our mightiest city dark and underwater.”

This came just days after the Pentagon officials said they are rethinking their entire strategy as they face a world in which climate change poses a greater threat to national security than terrorism.

Knowing that Washington is now kicking into high gear on climate change is cold comfort, given how severe the costs have already become. As parents, we’re horrified to imagine our children living in a world dramatically less stable than it is today. But the overwhelming majority of global scientists tell us that’s exactly what we should expect.

Many of us feel powerless to take on a problem this colossal and complex. What, you may wonder, is the most important thing I can do in my own life to help stabilize the climate? And can I really make a difference?

We’re optimists. We believe that personal and political transformation go hand in hand. Gandhi said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” In other words, when we live the change we want to see in the world, our positive choices inspire others around us to do the same. It’s true that, ultimately, we cannot solve the climate crisis without good political leadership — we all have an obligation to vote for that reason. But the positive momentum that we, personally, and millions of others generate can build into a global sea change.

Of the three main factors that determine your climate impact —food, home energy use, and transportation (mostly car and air travel) — food alone accounts for about 20 percent of your carbon footprint. That’s a higher percentage, for many city-dwellers, than the cars we drive.

Unless you’re in a position to swap out your 18 MPG minivan for a 70 MPG hybrid or an all-electric Nissan Leaf, changing your eating habits is the easiest, fastest, most gratifying way to reduce your carbon impact and to inspire your community. Here’s a quick breakdown of how your current diet could actually be contributing to global warming, and how eating local, organic foods is the ultimate solution (remember: nothing is more local and organic than the stuff you grow for yourself):

    Burning up fuel miles

    The shorter the distance your farm-grown food has to travel from farm to market, the smaller its carbon impact. On average, produce sold in the Chicago region travels 1,500 miles before it gets to store shelves. Each gallon of fuel burned by the trucks, ships, and airplanes that transport this food releases twenty or more pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


    American farmers douse their fruit, vegetable, and grain crops with roughly 6.2 billion pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizers each year, and huge amounts of fossil fuels are needed to manufacture these chemical substances. Also, when nitrogen-based fertilizers are applied to soil, they release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that has three hundred times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide


    When you grow your own supply of delicious produce, your diet tends to shift toward more fruits and vegetables and less meat. By far the highest greenhouse gas—emitting food is meat. Beef generates 14.8 pounds of carbon dioxide per pound consumed—much more than chicken, and about fifty times as much as soybeans and potatoes. Eating just one meal a week that contains no dairy or red meat would have the annual carbon-reducing impact of driving 1,160 fewer miles (more or less the distance from Chicago to Tampa). 

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    Organic soils capture and store carbon dioxide in a process known as sequestration. The high amount of active organic matter that's present in healthy, chemical-free soil tends to bind carbon. Glomalin, for instance, which is a glue-like substance that's produced by soil fungi, is responsible for storing roughly a third of the carbon present in soil.

    A thirty-year Rodale Institute study found that the carbon content of soil that was farmed organically increased up to 28 percent more than the carbon content of conventionally treated soil. 

    Wire basket

    Americans consume more than 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year — on average, more than 500 apiece. It takes about 12 million barrels of oil to make those bags.

    ‘Nuff said.

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