Shopping is getting harder, and I don’t mean because pandemic supply chain issues have your favourite snowmobile accessories on three-month backorder.
Buying stuff used to be about meeting basic needs or projecting an image to keep up with the proverbial Jones family. Now, many of us also want to say something about our environmental or social values.
What does it say about your family values when you have friends over, and their well-informed teenager points out that the tomato sauce in your lasagna is probably from a forced labour camp in China’s Xinjiang province?
And there’s a good chance she’s right, based on last week’s shocking revelations by CBC Marketplace about the origins of the tomato paste in many popular brands you’ll find on Canadian grocery shelves.
Even assuming you can avoid the product of forced labour camps during your shopping, you face a catalog of trade-offs and informational black holes.
For example, I was recently amusing myself by surfing the charts on Our World In Data when I saw one entitled Greenhouse Gas Emissions per 1,000 Kilocalories. Beef was the highest on the chart, at 36.44 kilos of carbon-dioxide equivalent per 1,000 kilocalories followed shortly after, to my surprise, by farmed prawns at 26.09 kilos.
Milk clocked in at 5.25 kilos, almost ten times the amount for wheat and rye and almost twenty times the emissions figure for the lowly pea. This suggests a litre of milk is associated with 1.7 kilos of carbon dioxide emissions. If only you could pour peas on your cereal.
Of course, it turns out you can. I recently tried something new for breakfast: cereal with peamilk. Or, to be more precise, a processed pea-based beverage from a Swedish company named Sproud.
As processed pea-based beverages go, Sproud actually tastes pretty good. It’s cold, vaguely milky and will definitely float your Count Chocula nuggets. It also comes in a TetraPak and will last on the shelf of your pantry or emergency bunker for a year.
However, Sproud didn’t solve all my breakfast angst. It costs $4.49 for a litre, which is more than three times as expensive per litre as 2% milk in a four-litre jug. It’s even twice as expensive as 2% milk in a one-litre carton. Saving the planet from milk emissions is challenging if you’re on a budget.
Furthermore, even though the peas in Sproud don’t emit much carbon as they are grown and harvested, the product’s carbon footprint isn’t quite as low as you might think. In Canadian Sproud the peas are extensively processed in a facility in Toronto, Ontario, which requires some possibly fossil-generated energy. Although its low-carbon peas are highlighted on the package, pea protein is only 2.5 percent of the product. Other than water, the top ingredient is actually canola oil. You need to look up the carbon intensity of that product. Ditto for the calcium carbonate.
Then your processed pea protein, nestled in its pool of delicious canola oil and calcium carbonate, needs to be trucked to the Yukon.
That’s a 5,373-kilometre road trip for my Sproud. If a standard 18-wheeler emits 112 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent for each tonne it transports one kilometre, that works out to 602 grams of carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, the carton of 2% milk from my store in Whitehorse doesn’t say where it is from. Let’s assume it’s not from Xinjiang or Ontario, but from a farm a mere 1,404 kilometres away in Dawson Creek. That works out to 157 grams of carbon dioxide. This saving of 445 grams of carbon dioxide from long-distance transport is large relative to the 1.7 kilos of emissions I estimated for a litre of the milk itself.
Then you still have to debate other issues. Do you prefer your breakfast dollars to support a farm in Dawson Creek, or an innovative Swedish pea-protein company? Do you approve of Sproud’s canola oil, which is not from genetically modified canola plants, or do you like genetically modified canola since it is more resistant to pests and (some analysts say) requires less farmland per tonne of production?
Breakfast is not a long enough meal for most people to work through these calculations. On balance, irrigating your cereal with canola oil and pea protein from Toronto, Ontario probably is substantially less carbon intensive than milk. Your choice of food is more important than how far it comes from. But it’s next to impossible to know for sure.
It would be helpful if companies put labels with their carbon intensity on their packages, but we will have some time to wait for that to become widespread.
In the meantime, if you really want to cut your carbon emissions you may have to take more drastic action. Like having oatmeal made with Yukon hot water, with a bowl of peas for protein on the side.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.