Community & Culture

Published on July 25th, 2008 | by Megan Prusynski

Edible Activism: Changing the World Through What We Eat

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:

Photo: freshly picked broccoli from my organic community garden plot.

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About the Author

I grew up camping and hiking in the woods of Idaho, leading to a connection with and deep respect for nature. I recently moved to the Mendocino coast in Northern California, where I was happy to find not only beautiful redwoods and beaches, but a high level of green consciousness. I am a graphic and web designer who focuses on making the world a better place through sustainable design and communication. I specialize in green design solutions for small businesses, non-profits, and activist organizations. When I'm not designing, I'm hiking, camping, traveling, taking pictures, blogging, and spending time with my boyfriend and our "fur-kids." You can find out more about me on my sites and blogs: my personal site,, or unplug magazine.

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  • Trevor Gant

    I agree with going local. Abstaining from meat isn’t always healthy (like in my case) but good consumer ethics can definitely produce a large change.

  • Hello! Wonderful article! I believe that local is the way to go. I am interested in how we can shift local policy in order to facilitate the move towards local. One of the big factors in many people not eating locally is the lack of farmers producing locally (at least in my part of the world, Northern Canada). While it would be great if everyone had their own garden, many people are not quite sure how to go about it, or plain old want someone else to do it for them. I think there are many ways that local governments can facilitate this shift, such as hiring community gardeners and giving the option of homeowners to have their lawns converted by community gardeners.
    Also, I know that eating meat is rough on the environment. I live in Northern Canada, however, where many vegetable food crops that provide protein are just not viable. Rather than importing protein sources, I choose local, organic meats, which actually *are* available. Which has less impact I wonder?
    Thanks for spreading the good word

  • I’m always into discussions on anything organic, so this read made me feel at home.
    I’ll bookmark the site and subscribe to the feed!

  • Yay! Interesting…

  • Thanks for posting and spurring this discussion along, Megan!

    Speaking of eating local, American Farmland Trust is hosting a blog contest to encourage bloggers to write about small farms and eatin’ local. No money–just press for your blog. But the important thing is that it sparks conversation.

    Here’s a link…

    Check it out!

    (Oh, and no, I’m not affiliated with AFT…just trying to spread the word!)

  • Megan

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    I also don’t eat soy much although I’m vegan. We may have tofu once a month or so, but mostly eat whole grains and veggies. I admit I am not perfect when trying to stick with a vegan, local, and organic diet, but I think the point is to be as conscious as possible about the impacts of all your actions, including your diet. People often get defensive when told that meat is not sustainable, but the simple fact is that it takes about 20 times the resources (water, land, fuel, and food, etc.) to raise meat as it does plants. I understand that everyone’s dietary needs are different, but just eating less meat has a big impact on the planet, and vegetarians are making a very sustainable choice by not supporting the meat industry at all. I respect people who make more conscious choices even if they do eat meat. I just couldn’t kill an animal myself, so I prefer not to let others do the dirty work on my behalf. It’s not necessary to eat meat, and the planet is better of for it, so I don’t. It’s not much of a sacrifice and it’s really easy. I’m not asking anyone to change their eating habits if they don’t want to, all I want is for people to think before they eat something. Every choice we make has a ripple effect, and all I’d like is for people to realize that.

    Thanks for reading. 🙂

  • millie

    sarah, please also consider that soy is not necessarily a major component of a vegetarian or vegan diet. choosing not to eat animals does not necessitate the consumption of soy. i am a vegan and eat soy products once or maybe twice a week, tops. and if i felt compelled to cut it out entirely, i don’t think that would be much of a problem. so it’s not an either-or type of situation.

    and as for certain meats being “friendly to the animal”, i really don’t see anything friendly about killing any animal for food when it is not necessary. i find it much more friendly — to animals, the environment, and my own body — to leave the meat off my plate and instead fill it with nutritious, plant-based whole foods.

  • Buying and consuming “local” is the way to go. Whether that be produce or meat, it does reduce the environmental impact a bit. I’m fortunate though, as I live in an agricultural area and there are a few organic producers around here. I’ve raised my own chickens in the past too and having them was actually a benefit to my yard since they eat bugs which would otherwise be eating my vegetables.

  • Sarah Hill

    Overall, the ideas behind this post are great; however, the constant push for people to “not eat meat” are often misplaced. While it’s true industrial meat farming should be avoided at all costs, one can find meat that has been produced in ways that is friendly to the environment and the animal during its lifetime.

    Soy, one of the major components of a vegetarian diet, needs to be trucked in from other parts of the globe as well, while one can often find clean and local meat wherever they may live. And while certain animals, like pigs or cows, may not be good additions to all landscapes, a farmer may graze animals like sheep or goats in areas where vegetable farming is not possible due to the terrain.

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