Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Serious Reads: How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee

Climate change is an undeniably hot topic (pun intended) in both the media and the academic world. Amidst controversial claims and pessimistic forecasts, we're sometimes left wondering how we can event attempt to minimize our own impact on a perhaps permanently altered climate. Author Mike Berners-Lee attempts to give us some guidance in his new book, How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, by detailing the direct and external climate impact that even seemingly innocuous human activities can have on the environment. Ever wonder how much using a cell phone or staying in a hotel for a night added to your environmental impact? This book holds the answers.

The book is laid out in sections, grouping commodities and activities according to the size of their carbon footprints. Berners-Lee expands on the definition of a "carbon footprint" to encompass the object's full climate change impact. His notation of choice is "CO2e", or the carbon dioxide equivalent of the combined greenhouse gasses added to the atmosphere by doing the dishes, making porridge, or flying across the ocean.

Berners-Lee emphasizes a few points before delving into his findings. First, all calculations are merely his best possible estimates of climate change impact—nearly always rounded to a neat sum. He is trying to give us a better sense of the scale of impact of the items he analyzes, rather than exact scientific data. Second, he does not seek to preach to the reader or convert anyone to a zero-impact lifestyle. His belief is that if we all knew how much carbon could be saved by taking a 5-minute instead of a 15-minute shower, say (1.3 kg of CO2e: the carbon dioxide equivalent of burning about two cups of gasoline), we'd be able to make manageable and mindful lifestyle changes.

Food is a recurring theme in the book, because agriculture and the processing of food is incredibly environmentally detrimental. In a special section dedicated to food, Berners-Lee emphasizes seeking out seasonal products with reduced packaging; buying only what you need to reduce food waste; and using more conscientious cooking methods (keep a lid on your pan to conserve heat; use a microwave whenever possible). If you make some of these changes, he estimates you can reduce the carbon footprint of your diet by 8 to 10%.

One interesting component of these suggestions is the high carbon footprint of eating non-seasonal, air-freighted produce like tomatoes (per 1 kg of hothouse tomatoes, 50 kg CO2e is emitted—over 110 pounds!). Berners-Lee advises seeking out foods like apples, oranges, and bananas that are shipped by boat rather than those shipped by airplane. He also discusses how important it is to avoid wasting food by throwing it in the garbage; the methane released by food rot in landfills is particularly environmentally detrimental.

One other suggestion that Berners-Lee emphasizes is avoiding meat and dairy products. It's been said before that meat production results in environmental degradation through clearing of forests for pasture land, growing of monoculture crops for feed, and the methane released through animal gasses. But Berners-Lee also emphasizes reducing dairy as a crucial lifestyle component to minimizing environmental impact. 2 pounds of cheese has a CO2e of about 22 pounds, versus about 25 for beef. While it may be tough to cut back on these food groups in particular, Berners-Lee estimates doing so would reduce the carbon footprint of your diet by over 25%.

This book is a fun, interesting collection of data with little preaching or scolding. Its most useful application is to give a better sense of the scale of impact all these items and activities have. Now I know that eating an apple is far better carbon-wise than a tomato, but choosing to do so will only make a real difference in my carbon footprint if I don't get stuck in a congested commute on my way home. How Bad Are Bananas? is worth a read if you're looking for a way to wrap your head around your carbon impact—but don't want to feel like you're personally responsible for all environmental degradation.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

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