Pioneers in the food industry are simplifying sustainable eating

Ironically, the food system we built to support human life across the globe now excels a crisis that threatens our very existence. Food and agriculture account for more than one-fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions. How can you as an individual eater improve your carbon footprint when it comes to food?

Fortunately, you don’t have to figure it out on your own. Through transparency, accountability, and efficiency initiatives, companies in food and agriculture are molding their models to advocate for a healthy planet, and empowering people to more easily support a sustainable food model.

Label Food, Not People

Just Salad is a restaurant chain committed to helping people cultivate healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. It’s why in September 2020 they became the first restaurant chain in the U.S. to carbon label their menu.

Every item on Just Salad’s online menu and app is accompanied by its estimated greenhouse gas emissions. This label allows you to cross-compare menu items in terms of the environmental impact of growing, producing, and transporting a specific item to your plate. According to the team behind Just Salad, “It’s just like a nutrition label, but for the planet.”

“The goal is to bring carbon transparency to our menu so that people can choose to eat not only for their own health but for the health of planetary systems,” says Sandra Noonan, the Chief Sustainability Officer at Just Salad. “If they have a desire to combat climate change as part of their daily eating choices, they can do that with a carbon label.”

This initiative makes it easier to “budget” your carbon footprint from food, like you might if you were trying to avoid over-spending or over-eating.

“The consumer has a huge role here,” insists Noonan.

Initiatives like carbon labels help people weigh their buying choices using more information than just price, appearance, or nutritional profile. They’re actually changing the way in which people view the cost of what they buy.

With Great Food, Comes Great Company Responsibility

Food businesses are increasingly holding themselves accountable for their own carbon footprints.

New York City urban farm We Are The New Farmers, for example, recently underwent a Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG) analysis in conjunction with researchers at Bard University.

We Are The New Farmers cultivates microalgae called spirulina, a sustainable source of plant protein. Through the GHG Protocol analysis, the team set out to answer the question, how sustainable are we really?

“We want to show with this project that we a) need to pay more attention to the carbon emissions of our food system and b) that microalgae are a valid and necessary alternative to lower carbon emissions,” says co-founder Jonas Günther.

After a thorough evaluation of business activities, the urban farm received a detailed overview of the state of their company’s carbon footprint, as well as customized recommendations to progress towards their company goal of carbon neutrality.

“One of the biggest missions of the company and myself is to reduce the carbon footprint of the food that we eat,” says Günther.

Having carbon neutral companies in the food space is vital to increasing flexibility in carbon-friendly food choices.

Grass Roots Fundamentals

What about rural farmers? Can conventional farming be “de-carbonized” in a realistic way away from cities and the mainstream?

The practice of agroforestry provides a viable avenue to do just that. This is the strategic integration of fruit, nut, and timber crops into agricultural systems to create ecological, economic, and health benefits.

Ethan Steinberg is the CEO of Propagate Ventures, an analytics and project development platform that helps farms transition to agroforestry. Steinberg and his two partners, Jeremy Kaufman and Harrison Greene, founded the company through a focus on healthy food.

“We wanted the health of our landscapes to be the same as the health of the food we were asking for,” says Steinberg.

When asked how an individual who’s not a farmer can make a difference, Steinberg suggests that people connect with their local food systems. “It’s so easy to just go to the grocery store and be like, ‘the label says everything I want it to,’” he says. “You kind of forget the people behind the food.”

In his opinion, plugging in with local farmers is the easiest way to get engaged with where your food comes from and support a climate-friendly agricultural system.

Improving Your Eating Habits Can Be Your Way of Helping to Fight Climate Change

It is believed that reducing emissions in food and agriculture will be one of the most timely challenges in the coming years. And the individual has an important role. As Noonan says, “As eaters, we can participate daily in reducing emissions.”

For some, maybe this looks like adopting a more plant-based diet. For others, maybe it’s familiarizing with the growing methods of local farmers. Perhaps, you’ll decide to choose meals with low carbon footprints.

Re-examining your personal relationship to food offers you an opportunity to align your eating choices with what is best for both you and the planet, empowering you to transition from a “consumer” into a co-creator of the vision of the world you want to see.


About the writer: Janet M. Early is a journalist and health coach based in Los Angeles. Get in touch.