How We're Reducing our Carbon Footprint: Food

Food fuels our outdoor adventures, but the choices we make have an impact on the environment. Learn how Mountaineers member Nate Brown is reducing the carbon footprint of his food choices, and some ways The Mountaineers is starting to make changes in this area as well.
Nate Brown Nate Brown
Carbon Footprint Reduction Committee
August 24, 2020

The Mountaineers made a commitment to reduce our organization’s carbon footprint as part of Vision 2022. In the Carbon Footprint Reduction Committee’s last blog post, we discussed the carbon footprint of our buildings and what we’re doing to reduce that footprint with things like LED lighting and solar panels. This month we’re excited to talk about another area where The Mountaineers, and most of us, can reduce our carbon footprint: food.

As Mountaineers, we love food: from the summit snacks and backpacking meals that fuel our outdoor adventures to our daily food choices. While food is tasty and fun, it does have an impact on our environment. But there are relatively easy ways we can reduce the impact of our food choices on the planet, at both an individual and organizational level. 

Personally, my relationship with food has gone through many changes during my adult life. I was a vegetarian in my 20’s, scrutinizing nearly everything I ate. Then I had years where I ate meat daily. I’ve gone through periods where I didn’t think for a moment about what I was eating as long as it was quick and convenient. And after 41 years, I’ve learned a couple things about food: 1) I can’t eat whatever I want anymore without consequences to my health and physical abilities, 2) food production and consumption has an impact on the environment, and 3) a diet that is healthy for me is also often healthier for the planet.

The carbon footprint of food

Agriculture, like any industry, is responsible for a share of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, and it may be surprising just how large that share is. According to the EPA, in 2018 the agriculture sector was responsible for 10% of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Food production not only carries a heavy carbon footprint, but also consumes a tremendous amount of water and soil. This in turn exacerbates the climate crisis. 

Fortunately, we have influence over many of these impacts. One way to think about it, according to environmental attorney Dianne Saxe, is to look at what we eat, how it is grown, and what we throw away:

  • What we eat: Not all foods have the same carbon footprint. Fruit, vegetables, and grains have a much smaller footprint than animal products. According to the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, animal products are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions of the average U.S. diet.  
  • How/where it’s grown/processed: The way in which our food is produced also impacts our atmosphere, lands, and waters. For example, the more a food is processed, the more energy is needed for that processing. Likewise with transportation, the farther food needs to travel from its source, the more energy is required to bring it to our plates.
  • What we throw away: We don’t eat all the food we produce. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about one third of the planet’s food is lost or wasted. That’s an incredible amount, and even more incredible given all the energy, land, and water that was put into creating that wasted third. 

How we can make a difference

So what can you do with this information? “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” That’s the best approach, according to author Michael Pollan in his well-known quote. 

We’re applying this advice in a number of ways at The Mountaineers. We’ve begun looking at the food we serve at events and made some changes, like offering more plant-based options to our guests. We're also looking at our catering companies and where they source food, with the goal of getting more of our food from local growers than before, to reduce its transportation footprint. And our events staff primarily works with partners who are conscious of food packaging and composting. 

We recognize that The Mountaineers, and many of us individually, have the privilege to choose healthy food that comes with a smaller carbon footprint. Many around the globe, including in our towns and cities, don’t have access to all the choices available because of income, race, or geography. We must remember that many of these same communities will be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis itself. It’s important for The Mountaineers to continue to do our part to reduce our carbon emissions and create a more equitable future; the two are unequivocally linked.

For individuals, food is a personal choice. We all have different tastes, caloric requirements, and budgets. Here are a few resources for how to reduce the carbon footprint of your food choices:

I've decided the choice that's best for me is to try and buy local whenever I can and reduce my meat consumption to a few meals per week. When my friends ask me about how they can reduce their food footprint, I suggest they make time to prepare their own meals if they can, reduce their animal product consumption, and buy local whenever possible.

We’d love to hear from you! How do you eat for the planet? What are your favorite foods to bring on your outdoor adventures? Have you tried making your own backcountry meals? Leave any tips/recipes in the comments below.

MAIN PHOTO BY Tyler Dunning.


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Suzanne Johnston
Suzanne Johnston says:
Nov 21, 2020 08:40 AM

Love thus summary! Thank you. While I live to cook, I see conflict during pandemic when we are asked to support restaurants.

Would someone from this committee speak to my Rotary club in March? Please contact me through member services ;not sure where this blog will go). Thank you, Suzanne Johnston