Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

How bad are those bananas, anyway?

A look at the carbon you're eating, and more

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Any author cheeky enough to sub-title his book "The Carbon Footprint of Everything" is all right by me.

But the coolest thing about Mike Berners-Lee's book How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything — besides the cheekiness and fun — is how you'll totally get what this carbon footprint business is all about even if you've never thought about it one iota. You might even give a damn once you've read Bananas, or at least finish this column.

To start, Mike is a pretty funny, interesting guy who's become something of a minor celebrity. He's based in Lancaster, near Liverpool on England's west coast. Must be the air or the local ale — and I'm thinking "Beatles" here, but back to Mike.

He runs Small World Consulting and has always been interested in sustainability. Early on he earned a degree in physics, then spent years with Outward Bound before turning his mind back to sustainability — namely, climate change and carbon.

"I was doing strategy research in the environmental technologies sector in the northwest of England and everyone was saying the consultants in that sector didn't know how to get anyone to take notice of what they were doing," said Mike in a phone interview from his office at Lancaster University, which his consulting company is affiliated with.

That was the impetus for Small World.

"I originally thought I would just get other people to do the numbers, actually, and then I found out you could not get the numbers from anywhere! You could not get anyone to give you a practical but robust assessment of what was going on in the supply chain or what was going on with embodied carbon in a product."

Not only were the numbers not there, "it was far too much about wearing hair shirts."

When it's all pain, it's no gain. So rather than relegating carbon to the "yawn" category, Mike drew on what he learned at Outward Bound to engage people and get them inspired about what he and I and thousands of scientists think is the No. 1 issue today — our precious climate and carbon, and the need to get the latter gone before the former disappears, at least in the form we've come to know, love and depend on.

What I like about Bananas, along with his assertion right off the bat that the changing climate we face is caused by us — and we can do something about it — are his equivalents and asides.

One kilo of average carrots, for instance, equals a 3-km train ride when it comes to carbon emissions. If they're local, in-season carrots they're responsible for less carbon than that. And if they're cut baby carrots — which save a lot of carrots from the waste bin but take energy to cut and shape — they're about three times the carbon footprint of average carrots.

If you ate only carrots and other root vegetables like them in terms of carbon per calorie, you would have a very small food carbon footprint — about 1 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents a day.

To explain, carbon dioxide is only one of the greenhouse gases that impact our climate negatively, but it's the biggest one at about 85 per cent. So the term "carbon dioxide equivalent" or CO2e for short was coined to express the total climate change impact of all the greenhouse gases caused by activity or an item.

Mike also notes your carbon impact if you boil those carrots for 10 minutes (add a few more grams of CO2e per half kilo). And, if you prefer real baby carrots, your carbon impact will also increase a bit because the yield per acre of smaller carrots is less than that of classic bigger ones, producing more emissions per pound.

If you feel like you're going nuts trying to memorize all this, don't. Don't memorize it or go nuts.

Mike's point isn't to drive us crazy with detail, it's to give us information so we can "pick our battles" — that is, to get a better feeling for carbon impacts as a whole in our lives, and where and when to pick things that can really make a difference.

Plus you can't help but get a kick out of his comparatives and admire the depth of his research — must be the physicist's touch with that northern brew.

A pint of locally brewed cask ale at the pub, for instance, has almost half the carbon footprint of a local bottled beer from the store or a pint of import beer in a pub. It has about one-third the CO2e of a bottled beer from the store extensively transported — so drink accordingly!

A bowl of traditional oat porridge, made only with oats and water, has about a quarter of the impact of milky, sweet oatmeal. And a 60-gram popsicle from the store has about one-tenth the carbon footprint of a big ice cream treat the ice cream man delivers in his van blaring the tinkly music.

When you're done eating and want to relax with a newspaper, Bananas even compares the carbon footprint of newspapers, from The Globe and Mail to The Guardian. Then there's the carbon footprint of a rose, a hot shower, major surgery, and even your own cremation.

As for bananas themselves, and other non-perishable fruits and vegetables transported by ships, they aren't that bad. But give those soft, perishable fruits like blackberries and raspberries from Chile or Mexico a pass.

Before you rush off to borrow Bananas from the library and learn more, here are a few easy tips from Mike that will keep your food carbon footprint low as you go:

1. Eat what you buy, or: love food, hate waste. In the Canada and U.S. 40 per cent of the food we produce is wasted. End users waste one quarter of all food, as in that moldy lemon in your fridge.

2. Reduce meat and dairy, particularly beef and lamb. If you must eat meat go chicken first and pork second.

3. Eat seasonal. Make that globally seasonal. Wherever it was grown in the world it needs to be in season there.

4. Avoid air freight and hot housing.

5. Avoid ridiculously excessive packaging.

6. Take the misshapen, slightly blemished apple or tomato home and eat it (see No. 1.)

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who tries to keep at least one foot out of the carbon.

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