No one expects you to run your own farm and live off the land, but there are plenty of simple ways you can reduce the impact your food has on the environment. Sustainable eating means the production of your food doesn’t hurt the environmental systems that we depend on.
There are plenty of reasons to care, including your own health and food safety, but this article is mainly focused on the environmental effects of food production. SustainableTable.org clearly articulates the issues with unsustainable food: "Industrial agriculture causes massive topsoil erosion and aquifer depletion, undermines genetic diversity, and pollutes air, water, and soil with toxic chemicals, causing $34.7 billion worth of environmental damage annually in the United States alone."
We’re not asking you to completely overhaul your lifestyle; even following one of these tips can make a difference. And maybe after you take that first step, you’ll realize why it’s worth it and take another. That said, in no particular order, we present to you the top 10 ways to eat more sustainably.
1. Eat organic.
This probably isn’t a shock to you; you’ve been encouraged to eat organic food for years. But it’s possible you weren’t aware of the environmental benefits of it. Organic food production follows certain standards that promote biodiversity (i.e., a balanced ecosystem), sustainability, natural plant fertilization, natural pest management. and soil integrity.
USDA-certified organic foods cannot contain synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or antibiotics; their production cannot involved genetic engineering, irradiation, or sewage sludge; all organically produced animals must be given 100 percent organic feed, which does not contain any animal byproducts or growth hormones; all organically produced animals must have access to the outdoors; and the product must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. It’s true that organic products can be produced unsustainably, but usually organic farming falls into the category of sustainable agriculture.
We bet we can guess what you’re thinking right now: "These are all good reasons to buy organic, but that doesn’t change the price tag on organic food products." It’s true; organic food tends to be more expensive. (Find out why here.) Pick and choose what to buy organically based on the amount of pesticides in conventional produce. The Environmental Working Group has composed a list called the Dirty Dozen of the 12 most pesticide-heavy produce that you should buy organic, as well as the Clean 15 — a list of the cleanest conventional produce that isn’t necessary to buy organic.
2. Eat seasonally and locally.
The farther our food travels from farm to plate, the larger the carbon footprint. A 2005 study found that the conventional food distribution system used four to 17 times more fuel and emitted five to 17 times more carbon dioxide than the local or regional systems.
While it can’t hurt to buy all your food locally, it’s important to note that the most important items to pick up at your local farmers market are fruits and vegetable. According to EWG data, buying broccoli locally can reduce the overall footprint by 20 percent; buying tomatoes locally can reduce it by 25 percent. Local meat purchasing makes only a 1 percent to 3 percent impact.
In addition to helping the environment, you’re supporting the community’s economy and your food is fresher. Even if you don’t have any farmers markets nearby, you can check the food labels at the grocery to determine where the product comes from.
American groceries are usually stocked with almost anything you could ever want year-round, but produce does have peak seasons. During peak seasons, you can find fruits and vegetables produced locally. But out of season, they’re often shipped long distances to make it into your supermarket, thereby increasing their carbon footprint. If you really can’t live without something during the winter months, freeze it before the season’s end and store it for future use. SimpleSteps.org offers an incredible online tool to find out what’s in season in your area or find a farmers market near you.
3. Eat sustainable seafood.
Sometimes the ways in which seafood reaches your plate hurts the environment. This is usually due to unsustainable practices, such as overfishing (i.e., catching fish faster than they can reproduce), habitat damage (e.g., the fishing method could damage the sea floor, destroying the fish habitat), or bycatch (i.e., the fishing method kills animals other than the ones being fished).
For quick tips on ensuring your seafood is sustainable, click here. For a guide to finding sustainable food, click here. And to find out which supermarkets were ranked highest for selling sustainable seafood, click here. Still have questions? Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s informative website.
4. Eat less meat and dairy.
Alright, carnivores. Hear us out — we promise we won’t demand you become vegetarian or vegan. But you should know that meat production accounts for about 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The main reasons for this are feed production, manure and the digestive process of cows, sheep, and other "ruminant" livestock.
The majority of the livestock raised in the United States for our consumption is fed a combination of soybean meal, corn and other grains that must be shipped to the farm, increasing the use of fuel and emission of carbon dioxide. Additionally, the grains used to feed the livestock require an immense amount of fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, and water. That fertilizer produces nitrous oxide, which has 300 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Livestock don’t clean up after themselves. According to EWG, livestock in confined feedlots generate about 500 million tons of manure a year — three times the waste produced by Americans! That waste generates methane and nitrous dioxide. Finally, the digestive processes of cows, sheep, and other livestock — but not pigs and chickens — involves the release of methane, which is 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.
If you can’t imagine your life without hamburgers, what about making a small sacrifice and going one day a week without meat? This is exactly the idea proposed by the national Meatless Mondays campaign, which states that going meatless just once a week could reduce your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, in addition to reducing your carbon footprint and saving natural resources. Check out their website for more details.
5. If you do eat meat, make sure it’s grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free, and organic.
Remember what we said about how the livestock feed increases the carbon footprint of meat? Pasture-based systems minimize this problem since the cows graze on grass and naturally fertilize it with their own waste. Thus, eating grass-fed meat is more environmentally friendly than consuming the meat produced by industrial farming systems. If you need some help finding grass-fed meat and dairy products, EatWild.com has a helpful guide to local suppliers.
You can also make a difference by broadening your usual meat options. Don’t just stick with chicken breasts when including poultry in your diet; the thighs and legs can be a healthy and delicious addition to a meal. By eating more of the organs and "less desirable" animal parts, you help reduce what goes to waste.
Try to keep your consumption of lamb, beef, cheese, pork, and farmed salmon to a minimum. According to EWG, those products generate the most greenhouse gases. Plus, with the exception of salmon, they also tend to contain high amounts of saturated fat and have a more significant impact on the environment due to the chemical fertilizer, feed, fuel, pesticides, and water necessary to raise them.