Help the environment — and yourself — by choosing what you eat wisely.
By Juhie Bhatia
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What we put on the dinner table can have a lasting impact on the Earth. Depending on the route your meal has taken from the farm to your plate, it can contribute to environmental problems such as global warming, loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, and soil erosion.
While modern farming has created an abundance of cheap food, the chemicals used to produce this food can be harmful. Food production also releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) In 2002, energy used for food production accounted for 17 percent of all fossil fuel use in the United States, according to a University of Chicago study, and the burning of these fossil fuels emitted three-quarters of a ton of CO2 per person. The good news is, you can help alleviate this environmental impact through your food choices. The first step is to pay attention to your food, says Joan Gussow, professor emerita and former chair of the nutrition and education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. "Find out where your food comes from and what the costs are," she says. "One easy way of making a contribution [to the Earth] is to be responsible about what you eat."
Eat Locally and Seasonally
The average mouthful of food in the United States travels 1,300 miles before it is eaten, according to the Tufts University Food Awareness Project. Vehicles used to transport the food emit fossil fuels, which contribute to air pollution, acid rain, and global warming, and energy is required to preserve the food for the journey. The most eco-friendly solution? Stick to local products.
"Getting locally grown food reduces packaging, refrigeration, and transportation," says Linda Riebel Ph.D., a psychologist, author ofEating to Save the Earth(Celestialarts, 2002), and faculty member of Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, where she teaches courses on ecological psychology and sustainability. "We do not need to import apples or get bottled water from France. That's ridiculous."
Whether you're at a farmers' market or the grocery store, check labels to see where foods come from. Local products are not only better for the environment, they also help keep local farmers in business, and the produce is often fresher and closer to ripeness and tastes better because it doesn't have to travel as far.
Gussow adds that you should also eat seasonally for the same ecological reasons. Generally, produce at a farmers' market or a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm is in season. Of course, eating the occasional fruit or veggie out of season isn't the end of the world, but freezing spring and summer produce for the winter is a better idea. To see what's in season in your state, check out www.nrdc.org/health/foodmiles.
Know the Organic Options
Modern farming depends heavily on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, which can damage the soil and pollute waterways. Organic foods, on the other hand, are produced without chemical pesticides or fertilizers and are processed with natural additives. They contain no hormones, antibiotics, artificial ingredients, or genetically engineered ingredients, and they are not irradiated. On top of this, organic farming helps the environment by fostering healthy soils and a diverse ecosystem.
After October 2002, shopping for organics became easier than ever. That's when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) put in place a national system for labeling organic food. So look for the USDA Certified Organic label the next time you're grocery shopping. Keep in mind, though, that many farmers use organic methods but don't pursue USDA certification, meaning that while some products on the market are more environmentally friendly than others, it's difficult to know how a food was grown without speaking to the farmer.
There are some other caveats too. Despite its environmental benefits, organic food isn't always the best choice.
"Organic agriculture on the whole is more environmentally-friendly, but I don't think if you're buying organic orange juice from Patagonia you're helping the environment," says Gussow. "If organic foods are coming from a long way away, you need to count the CO2 footprint required to ship it, keep it cold, etc."
"Organic agriculture on the whole is more environmentally friendly, but I don't think you're helping the environment if you're buying organic orange juice from Patagonia," says Gussow. "If organic foods are coming from a long way away, you need to count the CO2 footprint required to ship it, keep it cold, etc."
If eating organic all the time is not within your financial means, don't despair, just be selective. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy group for public health and environmental issues, suggests that consumers buy organic alternatives to the following "dirty dozen" foods — the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide levels:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Imported grapes
You can find a list of common fruits and veggies ranked by their "pesticide load" at http://foodnews.org/walletguide.php. If you love onions, avocados, frozen sweet corn, pineapples, and mangoes, you're in luck; these five have the lowest pesticide scores, according to the EWG.
Cut Down on Meat
Modern meat production consumes a great deal of water and land, and animal wastes contribute to air and water pollution. Meat production is also very energy-intensive. Even without accounting for the transportation of livestock and the final packaged product, the production of meat generates an estimated 18 percent of global greenhouse emissions, according to a 2006 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Meanwhile, the average American diet, which includes meat, causes the emission of a ton and a half more greenhouse gases for food production than does a strictly vegetarian diet, according to a University of Chicago study.
"Industrial meat production [including free-range and factory-farmed meat] involves concentrating vast amounts of plant energy into a much smaller quantity of animal flesh," says Linda Riebel. "To keep costs down, factory farms crowd animals into inhumane and cruel conditions, pump them full of antibiotics to prevent the epidemics that would otherwise arise, and give them hormones and other chemicals." Riebel adds that these chemicals are passed on to those who eat the animals, and that they enter the soil and, ultimately, the oceans.
So must you become vegetarian to help the Earth? Not necessarily. Though a vegetarian or vegan diet may be more eco-friendly, the University of Chicago study says that even cutting out a few hamburgers a week can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So consider eating animal products less often and in smaller portions. Meat (and animal products in general) is one of the main sources of saturated (or "bad") fat in our diets. Saturated fats have been said to contribute to various health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Studies have also specifically linked red meat (and in some cases, processed meat) with a higher risk of lung, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast cancers.
To further help the environment, choose organic or grass-fed products when you buy meat, poultry, and dairy and other meat products. The American Grassfed Association defines grass-fed ruminant meat products as those that come from animals that have consumed only their mother's milk and fresh grass (instead of grains) or hay all their lives. Grass-fed and pasture-fed meats can help the Earth by reducing the energy needed to produce and transport grains, says Gussow. These meats may also be better for your health. The American Grassfed Association says that grass-fed animal products are higher in vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids ("good" fats), and lower in overall fat, cholesterol, and calories than other animal products. Additionally, wastes from grass-fed animals are often used as fertilizer in organic farming.
However, because the USDA is still developing standards to classify grass-fed products, it's not always possible to be entirely sure of what you're buying. available in the United States and Canada can be found through EatWild.com, a private organization that requires every food producer listed in its directory to fulfill a number of criteria.
Meat and meat products labeled "organic," on the other hand, must meet USDA standards. They are better for the environment because they lower pesticide and fertilizer loads, since they come from animals raised on organic feed (grains or grass). Moreover, these animals receive no antibiotics, hormones, or animal by-products, and they have access to the outdoors.
Whether you're shopping for seasonal produce or grass-fed meat, you'll have better luck finding these products in some places than others. Traditional farmers' markets, also known as green markets, are often a safe bet. These are markets where farmers sell their goods directly to the public. The products are usually very fresh and locally grown and are often organic. The best part is, you can get to know farmers personally and ask any questions regarding how their foods are produced. There are more than 4,300 farmers' markets in the United States, according to the USDA. Find one near you at http://www.localharvest.org/farmers-markets/.
A less traditional but increasingly popular way to get local and organic products is through a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm. CSA farms can take many different forms, but generally a community joins with local farms to set up a system for purchasing farm products (usually produce, but sometimes including eggs, meat, and milk). Often the consumers cover the farms' costs for the season in advance; in return, they receive regular food baskets and sometimes the opportunity to help out on a farm. There are now more than 530 CSA cooperatives in the United States, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"CSAs are a very CO2 efficient way to function. Most of the farmers start out as or become organic, and they serve large numbers of people," says Gussow. To find a CSA cooperative near you, check out: http://www.localharvest.org/csa/.
If you don't have a CSA in your area, another greener shopping option may be a food cooperative (or food co-op). These are worker- or customer-owned businesses, meaning that the people who shop in the stores help to operate them. Food co-ops often act like grocery stores but sell only locally grown, seasonal, and organic products. Each food co-op operates differently and will have different merchandise, depending on what its members want. To find a co-op near you, check out http://www.localharvest.org/food-coops/.
If none of these shopping options exist in your area, don't worry. Just be sure to read food labels carefully and don't hesitate to ask the manager of your local supermarket to stock more organic and local foods.
It's not just what you eat that can have an impact on the Earth, it's also what you throw out after eating. When buying food, look for products with minimal packaging. Less packaging means that less energy and fewer chemicals were required to produce that packaging, and it results in less waste.
"Packaging uses an enormous amount of paper, plastic, and metal, and much of this is not recycled," says Riebel. "Marketing of small quantities of food and drink for 'convenience' is a major problem too."
In addition to not buying individually packaged products, Gussow recommends choosing produce with the least amount of packaging (fresh versus frozen, for example). If you must buy frozen dinners, she says, recycle the aluminum tray. Finally, be sure to bring a canvas bag to the supermarket to carry home your groceries.
To further reduce waste, consider planting some of your own vegetables and herbs. If you don't have a yard, you can use indoor pots. Another option is to compost organic material left over from your meals. Things such as apple cores, fruit and veggie peels, and coffee grounds can all be composted. This composted material makes a great natural fertilizer for your home garden, while at the same time reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill. You can put a small composter in your kitchen or get one for the yard. Compost bins are sometimes available for free from your city, so be sure to check. If not, there are a variety of composting containers on the market.
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