Bay Area Can Lead on Food and Climate Change

By Adam Stern and Nicole Angiel

September 7, 2018

As wildfires, heat waves, and droughts become increasingly frequent evidence of climate change in California and elsewhere, many people want to participate in solutions. One opportunity for everyone to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the pollution that contributes to climate change — is often overlooked. The food we eat, where it comes from, and how much we waste, affects our health and the health of the planet.

In the Bay Area, almost 20% of our carbon footprint comes from food. This includes the impacts of growing, processing, and packaging food, transporting it to the grocery store or restaurant, and throwing some of it away. For many people in our region, our diet causes more emissions than the fuel we burn driving.

Eating less meat and dairy can make a huge difference. For instance, an average American lunch including meat generates eight pounds of carbon emissions while a meatless lunch produces only 1–2 pounds. Avoiding meat just one day per week can reduce one’s food-related climate impact by 15% over the course of a year. Meatless Monday has now become a global movement with campaigns in 40 countries.

The Bay Area is a hotbed of food innovations that can lighten our footprint on the planet and help us adopt a plant-based diet. Redwood City-based Impossible Foods created the Impossible Burger — a product that looks and tastes like a meat burger but comes entirely from plant ingredients. Replacing half of U.S. ground beef from cows with plant-based meat would reduce carbon emissions by 45 million metric tons — the same environmental benefit as taking 11 million cars off the road.

Ripple Foods in Emeryville makes dairy-free products derived from peas, including milk, half-and-half, and a Greek yogurt alternative. Making Ripple products results in only half the emissions of dairy milk.

Transporting food from farm to table is a major part of food’s environmental impact on the planet. Veritable Vegetable of San Francisco has pioneered an industry-leading fleet of high efficiency hybrid trucks that improves fuel economy by 35% compared to conventional vehicles. The hybrid tractors and refrigeration units deliver organic produce to and from California and four other Western states.

Another crucial piece of addressing climate change involves reducing the 40% of food that is wasted. Key strategies involve careful menu planning, paring back portion sizes, and cutting food spoilage. NRDC and the nonprofit Ad Council have teamed up to create the SaveTheFood campaign, a website filled with food-saving tips.

With more meals being prepared and consumed away from home, the food service industry has a growing role to play. Bon Appétit, an on-site restaurant company headquartered in Palo Alto, serves employees at Oracle, Genentech, and LinkedIn, among others. This food service business is a leader in sourcing food locally, making full use of produce, and donating excess food to people in need.

This coming week, thousands of participants will be in San Francisco for Gov. Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit. An affiliated event on Sep. 11 on climate-friendly cuisine organized by Acterra and sponsored by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and LinkedIn will help food service professionals learn about sustainable and climate-friendly food service practices. The program will focus on steps that restaurants, caterers, hospitals, educational institutions, and corporate campuses can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

Whether we eat at home, at work, or on the go, we can all make better food choices. So, the next time you head out to your grocery store or favorite restaurant, be sure to ask: where did this food come from, how did it get here, and am I making a climate-friendly choice?

Adam Stern and Nicole Angiel are executive director and business partnerships director, respectively, of Acterra, a Bay Area environmental group based in Palo Alto.