Food for Thought
By Girl Scout Senior Chloe P.
Do you know where your favorite food comes from? I learned recently that mangos, one of my favorite fruits, are grown almost entirely in China. In fact, 75% of all mangos are grown in China, over 6,600 miles away from my house in sunny California. As we learn more about pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, it is increasingly important to monitor our own carbon footprint. We buy locally, bring reusable bags to the store, carpool to school, and try to minimize waste. One overlooked contributor to pollution, however, is the harmful effect of transporting foods on the environment. By choosing to eat imported foods, we are choosing to harm the environment.
Transporting food from another country or within our own country, whether by air, sea, or road, damages our environment by releasing greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere and act as a heat-reflective layer. They absorb excess heat in Earth’s atmosphere and keep the planet at a livable temperature. Transport by car or sea is not as harmful as by plane. In fact, food transported by planes generates 100 times more emissions than transport by boat or car. This means that my mangos, which have to travel by a 14-hour plane ride from China, cause 100 times more emissions than a fruit that can either be grown locally or shipped via the ocean.
However, this is not really the full picture. Studies have shown that even though planes emit more greenhouse gases, more pollution comes from transporting food by car or truck. Most food is transported via truck, but we can’t underestimate the impact of emissions from personal vehicles. This makes sense: if somebody drives their car a long distance to buy only a few things, the emissions from their car can equal or even exceed the emissions from other stages of production and transportation.
For some products, packaging may have an even bigger impact on pollution than the fuel used to ship it. Packaging makes up about 5% of the total energy used in food production and affects every step of food transportation. This doesn’t just include packaging mangos to fly from China to California. It also includes our own personal choice in how we bring food home from the store.
Most of us have been asked, “Paper or plastic?” at the grocery store. It seems “obvious” to use paper. A few years ago, California passed a law charging 10 cents for every plastic bag purchased. At least some research, though, has shown that it takes four times the energy to produce a paper shopping bag than a plastic one. Paper packaging requires cutting down forests, which negatively affects the environment because there are less trees to take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Manufacturing a paper bag uses 71% more water and produces twice as much toxic chemicals than plastic. To avoid this issue altogether, I personally prefer bringing reusable bags to the grocery store.
In conclusion, I think we should pause before we purchase our favorite food at the grocery store and consider the distance it travelled and the environmental damage that occurs as a result. Also consider how the item is packaged and how that has an additional cost to the environment. What if, each one of us, only purchased locally-grown food and responsibly and minimally packaged items.
We can collectively change the world for the better, one choice at a time.
Chloe P. is a freshman in High School in a high honors program in Southern California. She has been a Girl Scout since Kindergarten and is currently a Senior Girl Scout. She competes on the High School Junior Varsity Girls Golf Team and is also a competitive sailor in lasers, FJs, sabots and opti boats. Chloe virtually participated in the Sow What Journey badge with Girl Scouts of Western Ohio.