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Climate and EnergyOctober/November 2006

Turning Down the Heat

What Does Lunch Have To do With Global Warming?

Because modern food production is so dependent on fossil fuels: for fertilizer, pesticides, farm machinery, food distribution and processing, it is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The journalist Michael Pollan estimates that 20% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture.

The environmental and social ripples from the food Americans eat go well beyond national borders. Modern industrial agriculture, along with its high water and land use, pollution, and fossil fuel consumption, has been exported to other countries. Food products are then imported back into the U.S., along with migrant workers displaced from traditional agriculture.

Food distribution has become global, with an increasing flow of fresh produce from the southern hemisphere to the north in the northern winter. This has greatly increased the amount of fuel used for food transportation and greenhouse gases emitted.

Huge areas of Brazilian rainforest are cut down every year and used for growing cattle and soybeans for export. The Amazon forest is one of the largest biological reservoirs of carbon on earth. When this forest is burned, most of its carbon is released in the form of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas.

One simple change in lifestyle can help save energy and reduce greenhouse gases. It is easily available to everybody, and was a way of life for our great-grandparents.

Eat locally.

Buying food grown locally will ensure that your dinner hasn't traveled thousands of miles, contributed to the cutting down of rainforests, or displaced traditional farmers. Many supermarkets now label produce as grown in California or 'imported'. Buy California. Or better still, go to your nearby Farmers Market and buy Sonoma County.

It's also easier to influence the environmental impact of the agriculture that produces your food when it's right under your nose. Sonoma County farmers have made great progress in the last decades in reducing pesticide and herbicide use. However, many farmers, led by the local Farm Bureau, have yet to acknowledge other environmental problems associated with farming - which require protecting riparian habitat, sharing out scarce water and understanding the dangers of genetically engineered crops. In order to eat truly environment-friendly food, we need to deal with these issues in our own county.

We could also restore what nature once provided for free. Why don't we have sustainable salmon and steelhead fisheries in Sonoma County? Salmon is one of the naturally occurring food resources of our area, but silted creeks, overfishing, loss of cooling trees along stream banks along with unnatural water flows have greatly reduced fish numbers - a sad change from the days when the Russian River was a famous steelhead and coho river.

A consumer shift towards buying local food has yet another benefit. It 'grows' the local food system, giving farmers the economic support they need to survive.

Want to do more?

  • Buy food from Farmer's Markets, through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes or directly from farmers listed in the Sonoma Farm Trails guide.
  • Cook more of your food from scratch. Processed foods almost always contain something derived from corn or soybeans. These two crops are the cheap, globally-marketed products of industrial commodity agriculture, causing environmental and social damage and possible health problems.
  • Grow some of your own food if you like to garden. Every sprig of parsley harvested from the back yard reduces food transportation costs.
  • Eat less meat. Meat production uses more fossil fuels than growing crops, especially when animals are fed on corn and soybean-based meal rather than grass. Cows emit methane, which is 23 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.


  • Sonoma Farm Trails Map & Guide: available at public libraries or online at www.farmtrails.org. Farm Trails lists Sonoma County farms and food producers that sell directly to the public.
  • Community Supported Agriculture schemes: see www.localharvest.org for a listing of farms that run CSA's and for more information on the eating local movement.
  • Farmer's Market locations for several counties are listed in the Press Democrat food section on Wednesdays.

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