A new study reveals how savvy shopping at the grocery store can lower your carbon footprint. As awareness about climate change grows, more consumers want to make a positive impact on the environment. Some people do this by adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet, but that’s not realistic or feasible for everyone. Still, researchers say people can make intelligent food purchases in other ways.

A research team from Purdue University in Indiana identified three ways Americans can lower their carbon footprint. Luckily, they don’t require drastic changes, such as switching to a vegan diet. The findings were published in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology on November 3, 2021.

 Transporting food from farms to tables contributes 19-29% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agricultural production accounts for 80-86% of total food system emissions, varying levels depending on the region. Livestock, such as cows and pigs, don’t convert plants to energy very efficiently. Therefore, meat and dairy products contribute higher emissions than fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Because of this, previous studies have investigated changes individuals or households can make to lower their carbon footprint. However, researchers based their claims on an “average American diet” without considering variations. In reality, people eat a widely varied diet depending on preferences, culture, and other factors.

Researchers Explain How Smart Grocery Shopping Can Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

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To account for this diversity, the research team wanted to take a more comprehensive approach. Hua Can and colleagues analyzed 2010 data from over 57,000 US households to identify which specific items produced the highest emissions.

Then, they added the GHG emissions from growing and harvesting the various foods. They excluded packaging and transportation emissions due to the unavailability of this data. Next, they compared these emissions calculations to those produced for a healthy, eco-friendly diet.

The team’s analysis found that 71% of homes surveyed could lower their carbon footprint from buying groceries. They suggested three significant ways for consumers to do so:

  • Small households of one or two people should purchase fewer bulk food items. Because some of the food will inevitably spoil before it’s eaten, it leads to food waste. Researchers say manufacturers should offer smaller, more affordable package sizes to combat this problem.
  • Eliminating foods high in calories with low nutritional value would lower one’s carbon footprint by 29%. Not to mention, cutting out these foods would possibly improve health as well.
  • People should buy fewer savory baked goods and ready-made foods. While these foods produce relatively low carbon emissions, the volume of purchased items adds up to significant emissions.

In conclusion, the researchers say adopting these grocery shopping strategies can help people reduce their carbon footprint.

How Eating Less Meat Reduces Your Carbon Footprint

While the above methods lower food production emissions, researchers have found that eliminating or reducing meat consumption makes significant differences. For example, a study published in Nature Food found that animal-based foods produce twice the emissions of plant-based foods.

The researchers from the University of Illinois discovered that animal agriculture and livestock feed accounts for 57% of GHG emissions from food production. Meanwhile, the cultivation of plant-based foods accounts for only 29% of emissions. To put this in perspective, 1kg of wheat produces only 2.5kg of greenhouse gasses. 1kg of beef, on the other hand, results in a staggering 70kg of emissions.

Much of the emissions come from the land required for grazing animals and feed production. The paper found that the majority of the world’s arable land feeds livestock instead of people. Not to mention, livestock (especially cows) produce large amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

A separate UK study of 2,041 vegans, 15,751 vegetarians, 8,123 fish-eaters, and 29,589 meat-eaters found similar results. Peter Scarborough and his colleagues at Oxford University calculated the greenhouse gas emissions of each diet. Not surprisingly, vegans and vegetarians had the lowest carbon footprint – 6.4 and 8.4 pounds of CO2 per day, respectively.

Heavy meat-eaters, or those who ate more than 3.5 ounces per day, produced 15.8 pounds of carbon dioxide. However, the average British person eats about twice that much meat, so they’ll have a larger carbon footprint. Researchers say that these amounts would likely increase in the US as the average American eats 12 ounces of meat per day.

In summary, they say that going vegetarian or vegan can lower your carbon footprint by up to 60%.

Other Ways to Eat a More Climate-friendly Diet

As we said before, vegan or vegetarian diets may not appeal to everyone. However, you can still help the climate by changing other habits, namely:

  • Shopping local. The farther a product travels, the larger the carbon footprint. Therefore, buying farm-fresh, local food reduces impacts on the climate while helping smaller farmers.
  • Pay attention to food packaging. Try to buy foods with less plastic, as plastic production dramatically contributes to climate change. For instance, you can swap reusable bags for plastic bags when buying produce.
  • Consider buying groceries online. This option may not sound very climate-friendly, but it lowers emissions in the long run. When someone delivers your groceries, either locally or through a subscription company, they have multiple orders in tow. When you drive to your grocery store, you’re buying for just yourself. Therefore, buying online reduces the number of cars on the road, lowering emissions from individual trips.

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Final Thoughts on How Shopping Smarter Can Lower Your Carbon Footprint at the Grocery Store

Multiple studies show that eating a meat-heavy diet contributes significantly to carbon emissions. One study found that going vegan or vegetarian can reduce your footprint by a whopping 60%.

However, you don’t necessarily have to change your diet to impact the climate positively. Another study discovered that making a few changes, such as buying small quantities and eliminating packaged foods, could reduce emissions by nearly 30%. Also, buying locally and shopping with reusable bags instead of single-use plastics can make a difference.

This study shows that the fate of the climate rests in our hands. If everyone made these minor adjustments to their diets, we could make a considerable dent in emissions.