For as often as we do eat, it seems as if most of us don’t think too much about what we’re putting into our bodies. With food production so far removed from our every day lives, it’s easy to ignore where our food comes from and what it’s impact may be. But what we put on our plates has a larger footprint than what we drive. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,
“Livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Using a methodology that considers the entire commodity chain, it estimates that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport.”
The things we choose to eat can obviously have an enormous impact on the planet and everything on it, including ourselves. Naturally then, our diet choices can say a lot about our ethics and beliefs. They can even be a political statement and a form of activism. I think that every choice we make has the potential to change the world, and certainly what I choose to eat has an impact.
What makes our diets unsustainable?
There are many factors involved in getting our food from the farm to the store to our plates. At every step of the way, energy is used, adding to the food’s carbon footprint. Conventional agriculture is far from sustainable no matter what crop is grown. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are often petroleum-based, the soil is depleted instead of being rebuilt and renewed with natural farming practices like crop rotation, composting, attracting beneficial insects, and companion planting.
Transporting food around the world adds pollution and more petroleum to the equation. When we eat a banana or a mango, it likely came from a tropical area thousands of miles away. Every bite adds up to a lot of oil burned just to bring us the food we need.
And then there’s the way we raise the animals we eat. The family farm has been replaced with industrial agriculture that treats animals more like machines than living, feeling beings. Concentrating thousands of animals into smaller and smaller spaces is not only unnatural and cruel, it produces a lot of waste and a questionable end product. The increasingly frequent food scares should be a wake-up call that the way we grow our food is unsustainable and unhealthy.
Making choices for greener eating
The issues surrounding what we eat are overwhelming and difficult, but there is a lot we can do very easily to change the way food we eat is produced. It all starts with really thinking about what you eat and making a few choices.
The simplest choice is the one with the most potential impact: choosing not to eat meat or fish. Since raising livestock for food causes more greenhouse gases than any other single cause (see quote above), we can stop supporting it by simply opting not to eat meat. The amount of mercury and other pollutants in fish because of the state of the oceans is enough to deter many from eating seafood. Throw in overfishing and climate change, and health issues are just the tip of the melting iceberg. A vegetarian saves about 100 animals each year by not eating them. One person may not be much, but by choosing not to support the meat and factory farming industries, you’re creating less demand. Our choices add up to change.
With all the petroleum we burn in growing, raising, transporting, selling, and taking home our food, we might as well be eating oil. So one way to reduce emissions, oil dependency, and pollution is to cut out a few links in the supply chain. Eating locally grown and raised food is one way to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of what you eat. Farmer’s Markets, CSAs, and community gardens are great alternatives to the supermarket food shipped from all over the world.
Growing your own food is about as local as you can get. And there’s nothing quite as delicious and rewarding as picking your dinner from the well-tended earth. Gardening is not only a way to grow some of your own food, but a way to learn to work with and enjoy nature. If you just have to walk a few steps to pick your meals, you’ll burn calories instead of fossil fuels. Your food will be fresher and more nutritious as well.
When most of us want to eat, we go to a grocery store or restaurant. Our lives are busy, and convenience is key. So we need to make sure that there are sustainable choices available in the grocery aisles. Shopping at Co-ops where you can purchase food in bulk (reducing packaging and shipping) and organic foods is one option. And many stores carry organic produce and packaged foods as well. Greener groceries may cost a little bit more hard-earned cash, but they’re taking less from the earth and offering pure, healthy food for your body.
Every time we buy food, we can choose to vote with our dollars. We can support small local businesses or big box stores. We can buy veggies from a local organic farmer or a wholesale supermarket. We can eat lower on the food chain and lower our carbon footprints with every bite. We can eat according to our ideals and beliefs, and we can eat our way to a healthier planet. It’s as easy as making a choice and digging in!
Read More About Sustainable Eating:
- The Hidden Giant #1: “Food” — Vegetarianism on Planetsave.
- “Perfect Storm” Inflating Food Prices Worldwide on Gas 2.0.
- Adventures in Organic Community Gardening on Eat. Drink. Better.
Photo: freshly picked broccoli from my organic community garden plot.