Global Warming and Food
Sustainable Putnam seeks to promote food and agricultural practices that support a healthy relationship to the environment. This includes what we can each do to change habits and food choices towards that goal.
In recent generations, our experience with food is that of a consumer: a relatively inactive feeder at one end of the industrial food system. We crave what we view on a screen and go out to purchase it at a restaurant or a supermarket with out-of-season ingredients from around the world, manufactured in industrialized farm factories, grown, harvested, processed, and transported with a huge subsidy of carbon-spewing, air polluting fossil fuels. We need instead to become thoughtful participants in our local ecosystems. Instead of asking “What do I want for dinner?” and relying on a carbon-intensive food system, we need to ask “What’s available for dinner?” Look to preserved, prepared, and fresh foods from local farms, local butchers, bakers, cheese makers, and farm-to-table restaurants. Also, we can shift our lifestyles from mere consumers to part-time producers as well. Most of us are quite capable of growing some herbs and vegetables; preserving foods using forgotten techniques: making yogurt; pickling, canning, or freezing local produce; harvesting produce from “U-Pick” farms or farm stands, and preparing, and cooking them ourselves. Let’s look closer at some of the issues, and steps we can take.
Food and Climate Change
The ever-increasing globalization of food has created a dizzying array of year-round food choices never before seen in human history. The food choices we make affect the climate. Eating summer fruits such as peaches and cantaloupe in the winter means that they must be shipped from the southern hemisphere, creating a large carbon footprint from the energy required to refrigerate and ship them. In fact, on average every U.S. meal travels about 1,500 miles from farm to table. There are two main areas where we can make a change: buying seasonal food from local producers, and cutting down on meat consumption. Buying locally will not only reduce global warming, but will put us more in sync with what is healthier for our bodies: local food produced and picked in season without the genetic modifications necessary to withstand long distance transport. People who shift their diet to eating what is in season locally frequently point out how much more they appreciate and relish their food — and look forward to what each season has to offer.
Meat production has a large ecological footprint — not only in shipping these products from distant countries to our own, but in water, land, and other resources. Beef and lamb in particular have a large carbon footprint because they are inefficient to produce. According to the World Resource Institute, beef requires 20 times more land and creates 20 times more greenhouse gas than beans grown on the same land. Chicken and pork require 3 times more. A 2013 study by the United Nations found that animal agriculture accounted for 14.4% of all greenhouse emissions, while beef accounted for 41% of that figure. The World Resource Institute estimates that beef accounts for half of land use and CO2 emissions associated with diets in the United States, but produces just 3% of the calories.
In the last decade, industrialized meat production (primarily beef) has drastically affected the Amazon rainforest. In 2019 satellite images showed evidence of this rainforest being ravaged by fires illegally set by ranchers with the tacit support of the Brazilian government. The Amazon plays a role in cooling the planet by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, and also has the highest biodiversity of anywhere on earth. It is vitally important to the plants, animals and indigenous people who call it their home.
The clearest answers are to eat locally and cut down on meat consumption, beef and lamb especially. Shopping farm stands and farmers markets, or even starting your own vegetable and herb garden are great options. Eating meat only once a day and having “meatless Monday” dinners are another good start. Another way to cut meat consumption is to use recipes that use meat as a flavoring component of the dish rather than being the star attraction. Click here and here for more information and recipe ideas.
We can also buy meat locally at farmer’s markets. Buying locally cuts out transportation effects harmful to the climate, supports local agriculture, and gives you the opportunity to ask the farmers about how they raise their animals. Though the cost of these meats are higher than in the supermarket, so is the quality. Grass-fed animals have higher levels of nutrients such as Omega 3, linoleic acid and vitamin E. Buying meat directly from farmers, perhaps paying a higher price, may mean eating less, but higher quality, more nutritious meats. What’s more, buying local also strengthens our local food security, our local economy, and our social network. Knowing your farmer literally “pays off” in a higher quality of life for all of us! Check out these Putnam County farmers markets for local meat and produce:
Putnam County Farmers Markets Directory:
Brewster Farmers Market/Hudson Valley Regional Farmers Market
Sundays, 10 am to 2pm
Year round, weather permitting. Closed on select holidays.
15 Mount Ebo Road, South
Brewster, New York 10509
Cold Spring Farmers Market
Saturdays, 8:30 am to 1pm
Summer Site: May through October
1601 Route 9D
Garrison, NY 10524
Winter Site: November through April
Episcopal Church of St. Mary-in-the-Highlands
1 Chestnut Street
Cold Springs, NY 10516
Pawling Farmers Market
Saturdays, 9 am to 1 pm
June 13th through September 26th
5-7 Charles Colman Blvd, Pawling, NY 12564
Putnam Valley Farmers Market
Fridays, 3 to 6:30pm
June 26 through August 28
Tompkins Corner Cultural Center
729 Peekskill Hollow Road
Putnam Valley, NY 10579
Putnam Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Food Resources Map
Includes farmers markets, grocery stores, and food pantries.
Industrialized, Local and Organic Farming
We have all seen the images of cows, chickens and pigs crammed into pens so small they can barely move. Artificially bred to maximize meat output, these animals wallow in their own feces, are susceptible to disease, and pumped with hormones and antibiotics that are passed onto us. These practices — called factory farming — produce most of the meat we eat in the United States and are controlled by just four companies: Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS and Smithfield.
The large scale growing of crops and animals—industrialized farming— seeks above all to maximize profits and minimize costs. Nutrition, taste, farm worker health and safety, and environmental impact receive very little attention, The achievements of industrialized farming are large quantities of food produced cheaply—but at a high and often taxpayer subsidized cost to our society.
Even though the majority of farms in the US are still considered “family farms”, the reality is that a small percentage of factory farms are responsible for most of the food produced in the US. Since the Second World War, the increased reliance on fossil fuels, chemicals, automation, and the opening of global markets have developed a dramatic concentration of wealth in the agricultural sector. Small family farms, unable to compete, either abandoned farming or switched to large scale growing of corn or soy to feed cattle at the factory farms, leading to the wholesale destruction of rural communities. Pesticides used in industrialized farming remain on our food, foul the water and air, and sicken agricultural workers and wildlife. Residents of communities near pig farms show higher rates of respiratory disease, and are forced to keep their windows closed for several hours of the day due to the stench and negative health impacts. Destruction of ecosystems, patenting and monopolization of the seed industry, genetically engineered crops, and E. coli contamination are all the result of industrialized farming.
Local and Organic Farms
“Local” food is generally grown by farms 100 miles from you; grocery stores will often label something local that is up to 500 miles away. Small local farmers are more concerned with the impact of farming on the environment, may be using organic techniques, and because their food is not shipped, have a significantly smaller carbon footprint.
Organic farms are those that have been certified as such by the USDA. Organic food must be produced without conventional pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics growth hormones, petroleum or sewage-based fertilizers and adhere to animal health and welfare standards—in short, without all the substances and conditions in industrialized farming. Be aware that some farmers may be using organic practices but are not certified. For example, organic farmers with sales under $5,000 can call themselves organic without having to get certification.
Besides going to your local farmers market, you can join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). When you join a CSA you pay a set amount at the beginning of the summer, and then every week pick up a bounty of seasonal vegetables from the farm. Many CSAs also have a “u-pick” option, and some run farm stands on site with the extra produce. Below are some local CSAs:
Ryder Farm 406 Starr Ridge Rd. Brewster, NY 10509. Farm stand open every day.
Hilltop Hanover Farm 1271 Hanover St Yorktown Heights, NY 10598. Farm stand open Saturday 10-4 from mid-June through Fall.
Find a Farm Hudson Valley CSA Coalition
- Buy seasonal If you are buying locally, you will automatically be buying seasonal. Seasonal produce cuts down on the carbon footprint and is healthier for you—no more mechanically harvested tomatoes that are tough and tasteless.
- Check out what food labels mean There are an array of food labels for meat, dairy and eggs indicating the conditions in which the animals were raised. A comprehensive one can be found here.
- Grow Your Own Growing your own food is a healthy, inexpensive and rewarding way of producing fresh vegetables that leaves no carbon footprint, is relaxing to do, and gets you out in the fresh air. To get started, contact Cornell Cooperative Extension to view a class or guide in starting a vegetable garden. A 25’ x 25’ sunny space fenced off from animals can yield vegetables and greens for your family from mid-May to October. However any smaller space, or even growing some vegetables in a pot, will reward you with fresh produce or herbs. Since you will be eating the food the day you pick it, the nutritional value will be high. By composting household food waste and not purchasing fertilizer or chemicals, your garden will be completely organic. However, be prepared to accept that you will lose a percentage of your yield to insects. While there are organic non-toxic remedies for this, another solution is to plant flowers that attract beneficial insects that eat the ones vying for your garden. The flowers, planted in between the vegetables, add beauty to your garden as well. As you become more experienced you will know what works in your garden.
Organic seed companies often provide online videos about how to grow certain crops. If starting from seeds is too daunting, you can buy seedling vegetable plants to get started. To get a huge start on the growing season, order seeds in the winter. Start these in a sunny window indoors and you will have plants ready for transplanting in the spring. Microgreens offer a quick and easy way to start—and will enhance your salads with a variety of greens.
- Raise chickens for eggs Save money and eat more nutritious eggs by raising your own chickens. Resources are widely available about how to begin, and Cornell Cooperative Extension also offers classes on this.
Food Waste & You
According to the United Nations, one-third of the food produced annually worldwide is lost or wasted: “Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes)”. This is a tremendous waste not only of food, but of the water, land and energy used to produce it. In developing countries, the waste has to do with lack of infrastructure. However in richer countries, the reasons for waste are primarily cultural. People in developed countries—especially the US—tend to buy more food than needed, throw away food ahead of the “best used before” date, and discard fruits and vegetables that may be less than perfect looking.
This is something we can all change, immediately. Before you go shopping, plan a menu and the foods you will need for the week. Do not buy more than you need. Cook the more delicate greens first, over the cruciferous greens that last longer. If you find you are not able to use a perishable food in time, cook it and freeze it. When cooking larger quantities, break the leftovers down into portions sized for your family’s meals, label the contents and date them. Rotate what’s in the freezer so you eat the older items first. Manage your refrigerator and pantry in the same way, making sure that perishable foods in the frig and canned foods with older dates are used first. Be mindful that the “best by dates” do not mean the food is not edible. All of these actions will save food from being wasted and likely will save you money. These practices are not new – see the advice from our grandparents and great-grandparents in the food poster (below) circa 1910-1920!
- Donate food If you have too many canned or packaged goods in your cupboard, consider donating to a food pantry. If you are a merchant, consider donating produce that is still edible but not perfect looking or packaged food that is nearing a ‘sell by’ date. Contact Second Chance Foods, a Putnam based non-profit that cooks donated food and distributes the meals to local food pantries. The Putnam County NY Food Resources map also lists food pantries and sources of food in Putnam County.
- Cut down on packaged food Pepsico, Dole, General Mills, Nestle and Kraft. These are the largest food companies in the US. Most own several small companies that you might think are independent brands: Frito-Lay, Quaker, Yoplait Yogurt, Tazo Tea, Green Giant and Nabisco to name a few. When you cut down on packaged food, you not only reduce your use of plastic waste, but you will improve your health. Packaged foods from large conglomerates generally use unhealthy fats, add unnecessary sugar, high fructose corn syrup and a long line of chemicals that are not food, and are suspected of contributing to health problems. Avoid these products made with the triad of fat-sugar-salt that are so addictive.
Fish, the Ocean and Climate Change
Fish is a healthier alternative to meat, both for you and the environment. However, wild fish catch peaked in the 1990s, so oceans in some areas of the world are depleted of fish. Climate change plays a big part in this; overfishing is another contributing factor.
The Ocean has absorbed most of human induced warming. Yet that rate of warming is rapidly increasing, upsetting the delicate ocean ecosystem. Warming destroys the phytoplankton— the tiny plants that provide food for ocean fish and are responsible for an estimated 50 – 80% of the world oxygen supply — and acidifies the water. Combined, this has the effect of destroying fish habitats and coral reefs, promoting the growth of pathogens, increasing diseases in animals, plants and humans, and reducing the fish population overall. Ocean warming also contributes to stronger and more frequent hurricanes, severe flooding in some areas of the world and drought in others, which in turn affects the food supply on land.
The second cause of reduced fish availability is overfishing—particularly the practice of wealthier countries fishing off the coast of poorer countries, significantly reducing this precious food source people in these countries rely on. The United States, with 5% of the world population, is the second biggest consumer of fish in the world after China. So, like with meat, our choice to eat fish – how much and what kind is an environmental and political issue as well.
- Eat sustainable fish Sustainable refers to fishing that leaves enough of the species in the ocean to replenish the population, using practices that do not harm other fish species or the environment. In a global context, it also means leaving enough fish in the ocean for people that depend on fish for their main source of food.
Some stores will carry a label for wild, sustainable seafood. Many environmentalists think that this labeling system is flawed- but better than no system at all. It might be better to check regularly with a non-profit that regularly updates this information.
How About Farmed Fish?
Fifty percent of the fish we eat globally comes from fish farms (also known as aquaculture). Fish farms are closed entities in ponds, rivers, lakes, near coastal waters and in cages out at sea. While oysters and seaweed aquacultures have a positive effect on the environment, the issues with most fish farms are some of the same that plague livestock “factory farms”—overcrowding, artificial feed, parasites, antibiotics, and pollution or interference with the natural environment. Ask your fish seller where they buy their fish. The answer will give you an idea if they are aware about the differences in fish farms, and if they are making choices based on the farm’s practices. The previous link to sustainable fish also gives recommendations about which countries have acceptable farmed fish.
Besides sustainability, another issue with seafood to keep in mind is the level of mercury in the fish. Although mercury is naturally occurring in nature, large quantities entered the food chain through coal and mineral mining. Generally, fish that are high in the food chain where mercury is concentrated are the fish to avoid: swordfish and tuna among them. Below is a chart that gives guidance about which fish are best to purchase for sustainability and health. You can view the chart here.
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets
A vegetarian diet is generally one that cuts out meat, fish and poultry; a vegan diet adds dairy products and eggs to this list. The environmental effect of eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is dramatic. The scoreboard in the earlier Food and Climate Change section shows the emissions from vegetarian food is extremely low compared to a meat-based diet. And it is not hard to find studies that show how much healthier a plant-based diet is than a meat-based diet. Following a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, lowers blood pressure, and even, studies show, lowers the risk of osteoporosis. Vegetarians and vegans fulfill their daily protein needs by eating a combination of grains, nuts and legumes throughout the day. Generally these diets include a larger consumption of fruit and vegetables than meat eaters, another reason vegetarians and vegans have less of the major health issues in the US.
In taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint and work towards a healthier planet, we also change the way we think about food and our relationship to it. When we cut down on meat consumption, grow our own vegetables, bake our own bread, or buy food from a local farmer or farmer’s market, we begin to appreciate where our food comes from and understand that our choices do make a difference.