Winding your way through the grocery store can be a stressful process. You need to locate the items on your shopping list (a task made harder in a pandemic where you’re constantly leaping out of the way of other shoppers), take any dietary constraints into account, and calculate prices to make sure you can afford everything you need. But for those who are trying to make climate-responsible purchases, there’s a whole other level of choices to consider. And it can be confusing and overwhelming.
Which broccoli do you get ― the cheaper, bigger bunch, or the pricier organic one? What’s the difference between this fair trade, sustainable chocolate bar and that fair trade, deforestation-free chocolate bar? Should I buy fish for dinner instead of beef? And what about these individually wrapped bags of chips bundled up inside this non-recyclable packaging?
Labels and certifications declaring a product to be “sustainable” or “all natural” are supposed to help us make informed choices, but it’s difficult to know what they all mean. There are some resources out there to help guide you, from universities, nonprofits and apps. But just when you think you’ve figured it out, a slew of new classifications are added to the mix ― like “carbon positive” gin and “certified transitional” foods.
To help navigate the climate effects of our supermarket trips, HuffPost turned to the experts. We spoke to climate scientists, those who have dedicated their time to tackling the science and studying solutions to the climate crisis, to understand how they think through these decisions ― and what matters to them when grocery shopping.
Why is it important to factor in climate considerations when we are grocery shopping?
“What we eat and where it comes from matters: in terms of its climate impact, its environmental impact, its impact on local jobs and its impact on our health,” said Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University.
Climate and environmental considerations are of utmost importance for me when I shop for food. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, professor of soil biogeochemistry, University of California, Merced
Our global food system is a huge driver of emissions and pollution, from chemical fertilizers that leach into waterways to methane emissions from cows to the carbon released by deforestation to clear land for farming. At the same time, the climate crisis is already affecting the land and how we farm. Extreme weather, made more frequent and more intense by climate change, means flooding, heat waves and droughts ― all of which damage and destroy crops, threatening farmers’ livelihoods and the availability of nutritious food for everyone.
“It can be dizzying to think about all of the different ways that what we eat contributes to climate challenges,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, host of “Our Table,” a monthly discussion at Michigan State University about the future of food.
“There’s so much more to consider than the item itself,” she said ― such as the clearing of land, plowing the soil, fertilizer and runoff, water and energy use that go into producing the food, its transportation and refrigeration, packaging, “and on and on.”
For the climate scientists HuffPost spoke to, these factors are often a priority in the grocery store, to help them both reduce their environmental impact and use their purchasing power to support farms and companies doing things better.
“Climate and environmental considerations are of utmost importance for me when I shop for food,” said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, professor of soil biogeochemistry at the University of California, Merced. “I feel strongly about this because agriculture and associated degradation of soil are major drivers of climate change, and could also be a big part of the solution to address climate change.”
What are your most important climate-conscious shopping habits?
Buying less meat was something raised by nearly all of the scientists HuffPost contacted.
Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at the Pennsylvania State University, said “[we] lean strongly vegetarian and pescatarian as a family.” Marshall Shepherd, professor of geography and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, said: “Over the years, I have been a bit more selective in my diet. While I still eat meat, our family has added more meatless options into our diet because I know that meat production is very CO2-intensive.” Kirshenbaum also said she tries to eat less meat.
Shifting away from meat toward a more plant-based diet presents a major opportunity to lower carbon emissions, according to a 2019 special report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Nor is meat the only food to consider: Other products also leave a trail of environmental damage.
“I try to buy products that avoid excessive degradation of soil (as much as that information is available),” Berhe said. “This could include products that avoid excessive tillage and land disruption, deforestation to clear land for agriculture, and excessive use of agricultural chemicals.”
She acknowledged that this can be really tricky for the average consumer to unpack ― there aren’t labels that tell you how soil is managed. “As of now we are left to resort to individual research on farms and companies,” Berhe said.
In addition to researching companies, she said, “the easiest way for me to choose such products is to buy local products from farmers and groups with a reputation for promoting healthy soil practices, such as from farm stands, farmers markets or weekly CSA box deliveries.”
She is willing to pay more for them, too.
Mann also uses his wallet to support companies that are trying to do it right. “We reward brands that pursue sustainable practices,” he said. “The supermarket we [choose to] shop at (Wegmans) emphasizes sustainability in their practices and has taken significant steps to reduce their carbon footprint.”
Are there certain products you won’t buy, or try to avoid, when shopping at the supermarket?
“I completely avoid all … factory farm animal products,” Liz Carlisle, assistant professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara, told HuffPost. “Coronavirus has even more deeply exposed the fact that meatpacking plants and concentrated animal feeding operations are unhealthy by every metric.”
Across the country, tens of thousands of workers in meat and poultry processing plants have been infected with the coronavirus, with 116 deaths, according to data from the Food & Environment Reporting Network.
“They’re unhealthy for the people that work there, they’re unhealthy for the people living in those communities, they’re unhealthy from a climate change standpoint,” Carlisle said, “and they’re unhealthy for the animals who are there.”
Hayhoe, too, avoids industrially produced meat and animal products, and said she tries not to buy drinks that come in plastic bottles. Around the world, an average of 20,000 plastic bottles ― made from petroleum ― are bought every second, according to estimates by The Guardian. Most of this plastic is never recycled. Instead, it piles up in landfills and clogs rivers, taking anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to degrade.
When shopping for food, geography is another consideration. Berhe said she tries to avoid foods that have been transported from far away, “especially when there are perfectly good local alternatives are available.”
Carlisle focuses on how the food was grown, opting not to buy produce grown using synthetic pesticides (often this means buying organic). But she acknowledged that it’s a privilege to be able to make that choice. “I think all people have the right to a pesticide-free diet,” she said ― but the way our food system is structured means those products are often too expensive for many people.
Do you pay attention to labels such as “organic” or “fair trade” when buying food?
There are a plethora of certifications, pledges and promises on the food we buy at the grocery store, and they can be overwhelming to decipher. The scientists HuffPost spoke to said that while labels can act as environmental cheat sheets for shoppers, there are limits to what they can really tell you.
“A lot of the labels we see at the supermarket are meaningless, and specifically there so consumers will pay high prices for a product,” Kirshenbaum said.
For example, the recent trend of companies withdrawing from certification bodies such as Fairtrade in favor of introducing their own labels has been criticized as making labeling less transparent and increasing the potential for greenwashing.
Both Mann and Hayhoe said they do pay attention to labels ― “with the recognition that these labels matter more for some products than for others,” Hayhoe noted.
Organic labels can be helpful, said Carlisle. They are a signal that harmful chemicals weren’t used, and that “there’s a commitment there to try and move away from fossil fuels in the sense that fossil-based [fertilizer] isn’t being used.” But she stressed that when you look at the details, not all organic farms operate with the same standards.
Carlisle tries to buy organic where the practices go beyond just swapping chemical fertilizer for organic-approved biological fertilizer. She seeks out food that’s been grown with practices such as cover crops or compost ― more natural, regenerative forms of providing nutrients to the plants. Figuring this out is largely a matter of research and her interactions with farmers.
Pricier organic food is by no means accessible to everyone, but for those who can afford to switch to some organic options, some experts say certain kinds of foods are worth spending money on. “I only purchase organic products for produce that has been shown to take in large amounts of agriculture chemicals: berries, potatoes, etc.,” Berhe said.
Labels can also help us understand more about the labor conditions of the people who produce our food. “I avoid products that are sourced unfairly, without equitable profit sharing by farmers, land managers” and so on, Berhe said.
Fair trade labels can be a way to ensure you’re supporting farmers’ rights. However, “I’m wary of certain fair trade labels,” said Carlisle, who has researched various ones to learn more. “I look for those where I know the benefits are actually reaching cooperatives at the grassroots level, rather than higher-level fair trade organizations that may actually be leaving out producers who most need the opportunity to earn a premium.”
There are still some areas of food production that remain relatively unacknowledged by labeling and certification systems. Berhe hopes, for example, that “we will someday get a label that identifies produce based on the positive impact it has for soil health, i.e. product produced by employing sustainable and climate-smart land management practices.”
In an ideal situation, labels matter because they are how you can identify products that meet your “goals and desires,” Berhe said ― even if there is currently much to improve.
If you could pick one product to have everyone stop buying, or one change to make in the way we shop, what would it be and why?
Unsurprisingly, meat was at the top of the list for many climate experts. According to Kirshenbaum, Americans eat an average of 214 pounds of meat per year, “which is much higher than many other nations.”
“While plant-based diets may not be feasible for everyone for lifestyle and cultural reasons, minimizing the amount of meat we buy has the potential to have a huge impact,” she said. “And with the growing popularity of the new generation of plant-based meat alternatives like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, I’m optimistic the needle is shifting the right direction.”
Carlisle said the benefits of putting a stop to factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations “from a social and environmental standpoint would be massive.”
“We don’t have to all become vegetarians, but if we eat less … [and choose] grass-finished, pastured animals, with the same amount of money you would be buying less meat, it would be better for your body, it would be better for the environment,” she said.
Berhe underscored the importance of judging the environmental destruction associated with the products you buy. But that requires really doing your homework.
“One of the most disturbing trends in the last decade(s) to me is how products such as palm oil have been clearly shown to impact the environment, but they still [make] it into so many products that now you can’t possibly identify one or two products that we can all stop buying,” she said.
“My desire would be [for people] to learn more about the products we buy … and avoid buying products that have been shown to be excessively, unnecessarily destructive.”
But it’s not just about what you buy ― it’s about how you use it. Or rather, how you don’t. Both Hayhoe and Kirshenbaum pointed to reducing food waste as a huge step people can take to mitigate their environmental footprint.
“Don’t over-buy so you end up wasting food. Over 40% of the food we produce is wasted. If food waste were its own country, its annual greenhouse gas emissions would be number three after China and the U.S.,” Hayhoe said. “Plus, planning our meals ahead and purchasing only what we need and will use doesn’t just cut carbon emissions, it saves us money too!”
Wasting food also means wasting water and energy, Kirshenbaum said. “Addressing food waste is the lowest-hanging fruit to significantly impact the planet.”
Of course, individual actions only go so far.
“Personal behavior choices that minimize our environmental and carbon footprint are important. They set a good example for others, put some pressure on producers to pursue better practices etc.,” Mann said. “But, as the current pandemic demonstrates, behavioral change alone yields only modest reductions in carbon emissions. Any real climate solution involves systemic change and policies that incentivize societal decarbonization. Behavior change alone won’t get us there.”
HuffPost’s “Work in Progress” series focuses on the effects of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the This New World series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to [email protected].
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.