Dear EarthTalk: A chef told me that our food choices are the major driver of climate change around the world, but it seems to me that electricity generation and transportation are really more the problem, no? — Melanie G., Moodus, CT
It depends how you slice it. Producing electricity (power plants) and getting ourselves and our stuff around (transportation) do generate the majority of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. But while the agriculture sector in and of itself is only responsible for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the impact of our food choices ripples throughout other sectors as well, with the untold transport miles devoted to shipping food within and between continents, driving to and from restaurants and the grocery store — and all the disposable packaging food is wrapped in that gets tossed into landfills.
Meanwhile, we all use lots of electricity and gas to cook and prepare our food and to keep it cool in the fridge until we’re ready for it. And since we throw away some 30 percent of the food we buy, much of the carbon emitted to produce and transport it is for naught. No doubt, our food choices are an important factor in moving society away from our profligate use of fossil fuels and towards a greener future.
Whether or not you’ve already taken steps to reduce your carbon footprint by driving or flying less and boosting the efficiency of the buildings and appliances where you live and work, you can do a lot more by changing your diet. The UK office of the non-profit World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has teamed up with Knorr Foods, one of the largest food brands globally, to launch a new initiative called The Future 50 Foods, which encourages people to diversify their diets beyond the carbon-intensive staples so many of us rely on day to day.
“Greater diversity in our diets is essential, as the lack of variety in agriculture is both bad for nature and a threat to food security,” reports WWF. “Currently 75 percent of the world’s food comes from just 12 plant and five animal species.”
This so-called dietary monotony is not just bad for our bodies, given the lack of diversity and limited consumption of some vitamins and minerals, it is also linked to a decline in the diversity of plants and animals used in and around agriculture. According to WWF, we’ve lost some 75 percent of the genetic plant diversity in agriculture since 1900.
Some of the “future 50 foods” that WWF and Knorr would like us to eat more of include some familiar ingredients — lentils, kale, wild rice — as well as others that you’ve probably never heard of let alone considered eating, like pumpkin flowers, cactus and fonio, a nutrition-rich, ancient West African grain that Cooking Light magazine calls “the new super grain that could replace quinoa.”
“Many of these have higher yields than the crops we currently rely on and several are tolerant of challenging weather and environmental conditions, meaning they could not only reduce the land required for crops, but also prove invaluable in the face of growing climate uncertainty,” says WWF. “It’s essential that we change our eating habits to ensure we protect our planet whilst feeding the growing global population.”
Dear EarthTalk: My hairdresser was just diagnosed with leukemia and I wonder if there is a link between the chemicals in hair dye and cancer? — Cyndi B., Tallahassee, FL
The short answer is…maybe. Scientists have found links between certain types of cancer and repeated exposure to so-called “permanent” hair dyes (that is, the kind you would get in the hair salon that would stay put until the hair is replaced by new growth).
These dyes contain a cocktail of potentially harmful substances, including formaldehyde (linked to cancer and fetal damage in utero), p-Phenylenediamine (lung and kidney problems, bladder cancer), DMDM Hydantoin (an immunotoxin restricted in other countries but not the U.S.), ammonia (respiratory problems and asthma), coal tar (a known carcinogen), resorcinol (a hormone disruptor) and eugenol (cancer, allergies, and immune and neurological issues). These dyes penetrate and bind with hair shafts; darker dyes require more of the potentially harmful coloring agents and are therefore more dangerous.
Three-quarters of adult women in the U.S. color their hair, but it’s the hair care workers, exposed to noxious chemicals daily, who are most at risk. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), some studies have shown that hairdressers, stylists and barbers who work with these dyes do indeed have a slightly elevated risk of developing bladder cancer, leukemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while others proved inconclusive. If working with hair is your job, you might want to consider limiting your exposure to permanent hair dyes, or at least look for and offer safer alternatives, even if they don’t last as long.
A good place to start is the “Hair Color & Bleaching” section of the free online Skin Deep database, launched in 2004 by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) to provide information on the ingredients of common household cleaning and health and beauty products–and to highlight potential hazards and health concerns. The database contains listings for hundreds of hair color products, both for at-home use and in salons, that won’t make you sick. Some favorite all-natural, non-toxic brands to try include EcoColors, Hairprint, Organic & Mineral, Logona, Good Dye Young and Naturigin.
According to Nicole Cothrun Venables, a Hollywood-based stylist, there are many all-natural ways to enhance, brighten or alter your existing hair color without subjecting your locks to carcinogenic chemicals. “Fruit, vegetable, and herb restorative color cocktails are excellent rinses that can be applied once per week to refresh your color,” she reports. “Tea, coffee and wine hair stains are also gentle ways to add subtle hints of opaque color, depth, highlights and shine.” Check out her DIY hair color treatment recipes and techniques in her HuffPost article “7 Non-Toxic Solutions to Healthy Hair Color.”
Another way to avoid potentially dangerous hair color treatments is to just get over your misplaced vanity and accept your natural hair color — even if it’s gray — as a beautiful expression of who you are and what you stand for in the increasingly manicured, colorized and fabricated world we now inhabit.
Contacts: ACS’s “Hair Dye,” cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/hair-dyes.html; EWG, ewg.org/skindeep/browse/hair+color+and+bleaching/; EcoColors, www.ecocolors.net; Hairprint, www.myhairprint.com; Organic & Mineral, originalmineral.com/cct-color/; Logona, logona.de/de/haare/pflanzen-haarfarben.html; Sante, sante.de/en/hair/herbal-hair-colors.html; Good Dye Young, gooddyeyoung.com/#colors; Naturigin, naturigin.com/natural-hair-colours/; HuffPost, www.huffpost.com/entry/nontoxic-hair-dye_b_1005188.
Dear EarthTalk: Given all the advances in residential household efficiency, can you paint a picture of what the home of the future will look like? — Jennifer C., Valmeyer, IL
No doubt, homes in the future, whether single family dwellings or apartments in larger buildings, will be much greener than what we are all living in these days. For starters, the use of sustainable, locally sourced (and ideally recycled) materials will be the norm, not the exception, so as to avoid the unnecessary emissions and resource consumption required to make new stuff and ship it around the world.
Homes of the future will be energy efficient. Part of this efficiency will come from better insulation, doors and windows to keep the heat/cold inside where you want it. The other part will come in the form of using renewable energy generated on-site, whether from rooftop photovoltaic solar panels, thin-film window treatments, solar shingles, micro wind turbines, kinetic energy harvesters, or other newfangled technologies. And all this self-sustaining energy will be stored in your own high-capacity batteries probably not so different from Tesla’s Powerwall array.
Homes of the future will also be smart. Your appliances, A/C, lighting, home security, motorized blinds, garage door openers and other systems will be connected to your network with controls available through apps over the Internet. And chances are, your future home will be smaller. The “tiny house” movement highlights how much homeowners can save on utility bills when space is limited. Efficiency can also be about use of space as much as about use of energy. While we won’t all live in tiny homes, downsizing will definitely continue to be “in.”
And what about outside your home? Don’t be surprised if your perfect lawn has been replaced by native plants attuned to the surrounding ecosystem. These hardy local plants won’t need chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides to thrive. Rainwater from your roof will be collected in cisterns, with the resulting “graywater” used to irrigate your landscaping. A green roof or vertical garden could top it all off.
While the picture painted above may seem far-fetched, it’s really not, given that you could build a home that met all of the above criteria today for not much more than a conventional home. That said, it might be greener still to retrofit your existing old-school home with eco-friendly upgrades than to tear it down and build a new one, given the emissions associated with manufacturing, materials transport and assembly on a new structure. While the new home will be more efficient, it could take decades to “pay back” the “carbon debt” accrued by building from scratch.
Of course, all buildings run their course eventually, so when it is time to tear-down, it’s good to know there are plenty of green options out there to replace the old homestead. And with California adopting new building codes that go into effect in 2020 calling on all new construction of single-family homes and low-rise apartments to meet zero net energy standards (whereby they generate as much power from on-site renewables as they consume from the grid), the future may be here sooner than we imagined.
Contacts: Tesla Powerwall, tesla.com/powerwall; “Tiny Homes Are Big On Energy Efficiency,” ase.org/blog/tiny-homes-are-big-energy-efficiency; “CA Building Code Takes Big Step Toward Net-Zero Energy,” nrdc.org/experts/pierre-delforge/ca-building-code-takes-big-step-toward-net-zero-energy.
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that China and other nations have gone gangbusters with reforestation projects that are ambitious enough to have a significant impact on cutting carbon emissions. Why aren’t we also doing this here in the U.S.?
— Mickie Infurcia, Hamden, CT
A recent Boston University (BU) study tracking satellite data of vegetation coverage found that the world is indeed getting greener overall, largely thanks to an ambitious reforestation program underway in China.
“China alone accounts for 25 percent of the global net increase in leaf area with only 6.6 percent of global vegetated area,” says lead researcher Chi Chen of BU’s Department of Earth and Environment. “This is equal to the net greening in the three largest countries, Russia, the United States and Canada, that together hold 31 percent of the global vegetated area.”
China’s reforestation efforts date back to the 1970s when the government started requiring every citizen over age 11 to plant at least three saplings every year to augment official government-backed reforestation projects. The result has been the planting of some 66 billion trees across some 12,000 miles of Northern China over the last few decades, with the so-called “Great Green Wall of China” expected to snake along some 2,800 continuous miles by 2050.
China isn’t the only country hell-bent on reforestation. Pakistan embarked on its Billion Tree Tsunami campaign in 2014 and is well on its way of achieving its goal of restoring healthy forests to some 350,000 hectares of degraded land. Meanwhile, Australia’s “20 Million Trees Program” aims to re-establish green corridors and urban forests across the country while mitigating climate impacts by facilitating the planting of 20 million trees by 2020. Another major reforestation effort with global impact is happening in Brazil, where the non-profit Conservation International is helping restore 30,000 of the hardest hit hectares across the so-called “arc of deforestation” in the Amazon rainforest as a key part of that country’s Paris climate agreement goal of reforesting 12 million hectares by 2030.
Here in the U.S., our forebears chopped down practically every tree they could until around 1920, but then we started to regain some of the lost tree cover over the next 40 years as abandoned farms reverted back to forest. Since then, we are barely net positive in forest cover as tree planting campaigns by the U.S. Forest Service and the non-profit Arbor Day Foundation have made up for losses from development and logging. That said, increased reforestation is not a major part of American efforts to meet climate mitigation targets given more practical ways we can achieve quicker overall emissions reductions.
Beyond the U.S., though, there are still lots of “low-hanging fruit” around the world in the form of other areas that would be good candidates for reforestation. The non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) maintains the Atlas of Forest & Landscape Restoration Opportunities, which includes global overlay maps on current forest coverage, potential forest coverage, forest condition and human pressure on forest landscapes. According to WRI, upwards of two billion hectares of degraded or logged over forest lands around the world are ripe for restoration work if only we can muster the political will to make it happen.
Contacts: Chi Chen, sites.bu.edu/cliveg/people/doctoral-students/chi-chen/; EarthTalk’s “What Is The Great Green Wall of China?” earthtalk.org/green-wall-china/; Australia’s 20 Million Trees Program, nrm.gov.au/national/20-million-trees; Arbor Day Foundation, arborday.org; WRI’s Atlas of Forest & Landscape Restoration Opportunities, wri.org/applications/maps/flr-atlas.