Q&A with Kerri LaCharite - Sustainable Food Choices and Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

In This Story

People Mentioned in This Story

Kerri LaCharite, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. She writes and teaches about sustainable food systems, food and culture, urban agriculture, and the effects of agriculture-based learning on eating behaviors.

Headshot of Dr. Kerri LaCharite

In this interview, she gives advice on how to make more sustainable food choices and reduce your carbon footprint. 

Why is it important for researchers and scientists to study the sustainability of food and how our own food consumption affects the environment?

Our food systems shape our world. It accounts for 51% of U.S. land use, 80% of consumptive water use and 16% of energy use. Agriculture was responsible for 9.3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 with livestock and soil management being the main contributors.

Agriculture and the U.S. food system have become dependent on fossil fuels. For every unit of food energy or calorie produced, 13 units of primarily fossil energy is consumed. It is also inefficient. The U.S. food system produced 4,000 calories per person per day in 2010, while consumption was 2,507 calories during the same year. The EPA estimates that food waste in the U.S. is 31%.

In 2012, the U.S. agriculture used 899 million pounds of pesticides. Nutrient runoff primarily fertilizers used in agriculture in regions surrounding the Mississippi River watershed has produced a hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2017 the hypoxic dead zone was 8,776 sq. miles.

Many parts of the U.S. are experiencing groundwater depletion, in which withdrawal from agricultural irrigation is exceeding the recharge rate from Pennsylvania to California. The FAO also estimated that 75 billion metric tons of soil are lost to erosion annually due to soil management (or lack thereof) on agricultural lands, which affects future productivity and food security.

For individuals who want to understand how their food choices affect their carbon footprint are there some principles or frameworks that you would recommend individuals consider – rather than hard and fast rules that may be harder for individuals to apply to their daily routines?

Meat and dairy are the main contributors to greenhouse gases. Globally, livestock production accounts for an estimate 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions related to human activities. Red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) and dairy production together account for nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the U.S. food supply chain. Production of meat per person has increased significantly with the industrialization of agriculture. In 1967 25 lbs. were produced per person in the U.S. Today those numbers are 195 lbs. of meat per person annually.

The media makes us think that we are not consuming enough protein, which is not the case. Americans are well exceeding recommendations for protein consumption. Recommendations are 5.5 oz of protein (not just from animal sources). Estimates of U.S. protein consumption in adults range between 6.2 oz to 7.6 oz per day.

There is so much that we could be doing to help shape the food system. Eating less meat and dairy is a great start. You don’t need to be a vegan or vegetarian to make a difference. For some it might be doing a meatless meal once a week. For others eating a plant-based diet during the week and saving meat consumption for the weekend to be really savored, would be a great step. On average a serving of processed red meat is 40 times the negative environmental impact than a serving of vegetables. Health would be an added benefit from eating less meat. Eating an additional serving of processed red meat raises the relative overall mortality rate 40%. Most governmental and health organizations from the American Cancer Society to USDA’s MyPlate recommend eating more fruits and vegetables. Overall mortality rates and risks decrease with even replacing some meat with plant-based foods with greater decreases with vegan and vegetarian diets.

What impact can be made if individuals better understood and tried to address their attitudes, mindsets, and behaviors about food consumption as it relates to sustainability?

This is a really great question. One systematic review done by Aleksandrowicz, Green, Joy, Smith and Haines (2016) found that it is possible for greenhouse gas emissions to decrease as high as 70-80% and water use to decrease 50% with the adoption of sustainable diets. But they also found that reductions of environmental footprints were relative to the reduction in animal-based foods.

What this tells me is that it is possible to address the environmental impact of our food choices and to form a more sustainable food system.

What are some of the most important concepts you try to teach your students?

First, I want them to understand the concepts of wicked problems and systems thinking. Wicked problems are also called social messes and are more than one problem. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. For example, food insecurity is a symptom of poverty. Solutions to wicked problems can only be better or worse. There is no correct solution to poverty or food insecurity. Systems thinking or understanding how systems relate can better address wicked problems. Health, the environment, economics, and the food system are interconnected. Systems thinking focuses attention on the many ways these relationships may play out. For example, if everyone ate the recommended servings of fish advocated by USDA dietary recommendations, global wild-catch fish stocks would be depleted, there would be a greater ecological footprint from unsustainable practices in aquaculture, and a healthy food source would be lost or unstable. Systems thinking acknowledges that root causes are results of other events, behaviors, or feedback loops.

Second, environmental degradation impacts food security both in the short term and the long term. Not all students care about the environment, but they do care about the futures of their children, nieces, nephews, etc. or even the health of communities across the globe.

Third, I want students to understand how much policy shapes what they eat. The American dream instills in us this belief that individuals are at least in part in charge of their own destiny. As part of that ethos, we believe if we can give individuals nutrition or environmental education, they will make different choices. But we make decisions within a certain environment and conditions that have been influenced by policy (or the lack thereof). For example, soda companies like Coca-Cola want to get into elementary schools not because they make much money in those environments, however, by doing so they create brand loyalty for life.

Last, I want students to understand that commodity crops such as corn, wheat, and soy are grown for complex set of reasons. These crops allow meat production at current levels possible. Many point to national subsidies as the problem and it does incentivize meat production. However, these crops also require very little labor. One farmer on a tractor can care for thousands of acres. Fruits and vegetables are considered specialty crops, most of which require harvesting by hand done by immigrants making below minimum wage. Even at these rates, fruits and vegetables are considered expensive for this reason. Fruits and vegetables are also highly perishable. The results of a canceled or postponed order from a major buyer can be financially catastrophic for a farmer.

What do your students often find most interesting or surprising?

While systems thinking is now being taught in elementary schools, many of them really find the concept challenging and difficult to see feedback loops between systems. Many of my students are nutrition students. They have little knowledge of climate change or environmental issues. Some of them find it overwhelming to now be knowledgeable or engaged in the environment as an important part of address nutrition, food security and health.

You mentioned that our experiences shape our attitudes – how can we help foster an environment where people are more conscious about the food choices they make and their larger impact?

The best way to address food behaviors is by shaping the food environment and the food system through policy. At a local, state and national level we can advocate for policies that increase the amount of fruits and vegetables carried at corner stores or convenience stores that accept SNAP benefits and require a certain amount of foods to be sourced locally in schools, universities, jails or other governmental buildings. We can place limits on industry access to schools through vending machines or advertising. We can encourage zoning laws that allow community gardens, urban agriculture, front yard edible gardens, farmers markets and mobile markets. We can vote for congress delegates who support initiatives within the farm bill for sustainable agriculture. We can require schools to have school gardens, cooking classes and salad bars. We can support initiatives to limit greenhouse gases from agriculture, alternatives to reliance on groundwater irrigation or soil management techniques through major national policies like the farm bill or the clean water act.

Basically, we need to be more active in policies that shape what foods are available and how they are produced. If we create these environments, carrot sticks not French fries will be the norms for kids.

Research (including my own) also shows that children to adults eat more fruits and vegetables if they have some ownership in growing it. They become emotionally invested, creating shifts in values and behaviors.

What is the 4VA Food Systems Leadership Institute and what lessons learned do you think can be applied more broadly here at Mason and in the Commonwealth?

In 2015, colleagues from four of Virginia’s leading public universities—George Mason University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and James Madison University—formed the Virginia Sustainable Food Coalition (VSFC). The mission of this informal collaborative is to harness the intellectual, human and economic capital of Virginia’s colleges and universities to foster the emerging local food economy in the Commonwealth. One action item that emerged from VSFC participants’ early conversations was development of a course, the Virginia Food Systems Leadership Institute (VFSLI), that would act as an important vehicle for carrying out this mission. 

VFSLI was developed between May 2017 and May 2018 by an interdisciplinary team of colleagues representing the four universities that participate in the VSFC. A wide array of food system professionals from Virginia—representing state agencies, university dining providers, food producers, food distributors, and other private sector stakeholders—provided input on course design and content. The authors were part of a multi-university faculty team that delivered and assessed the VFSLI pilot in the summer of 2018. VFSLI development and delivery was supported by 4-VA, a state-funded grant program that supports research and curricular collaborations involving Virginia’s major public universities, and by a Curriculum Impact Grant from the Office of the Provost at George Mason University.

VFSLI was designed to prepare rising leaders in sustainable food systems by combining pertinent content knowledge in food systems, competency development in leadership, and a means for students to gain practical skills and hands-on experience related to job opportunities and infrastructure improvement in local and regional food systems. Designed for upper-level undergraduates, as well as graduate students, VFSLI uses a systems thinking model and takes an interdisciplinary approach to instruction and assessment.

This summer we ran the course virtually.

What else do you want the Mason community to know or better understand?

We have an opportunity to influence what is served and how food is procured in the dining halls. We as a community can ask for changes in the dining services contract between the university and Sodexo, including a percentage of sustainable and/or local food. My interactions with the chefs and sustainability program manager at Sodexo have also all indicated their interest in local and sustainable food, but their procurement choices are informed by student interest and the larger company policies. Their surveys have showed sustainable and local food sources as significantly less important than cost and other priorities. Many other colleges and universities have made significant changes in procurement and food offerings. This is not out of reach.