There’s no doubt about it: What we eat has a serious ecological impact. With food production accounting for almost 20 percent of our fossil-fuel use in the United States, we have to alter our approach to mealtime if we want to reverse climate change.
The strategy? A collective diet, one that focuses less on curbing carbs and calories and more on cutting carbon.
With these simple steps and easy-to-make recipes, you’ll be shedding carbon pounds before you know it (you might shed a few real pounds, too).
Eat Locally, Organically and Seasonally
The debate continues over which is better for the earth, local or organic. Both have eco-friendly benefits to offer. Buying local mitigates the carbon costs of packaging and shipping to the consumer — for instance, when you purchase apples from the farm down the road instead of from the supermarket, which imports them all the way from Mexico. Local can also mean fresher, as nutrients get lost as soon as fruits and vegetables are harvested.
But some argue that local doesn’t address other eco and health issues. “Who cares if it’s locally grown if they’re using methyl bromide on their strawberries?” asks Theresa Marquez, chief marketing executive for the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) Cooperative and Organic Valley Family of Farms. When it comes down to it, buying local and organic provides the most earth-friendly impact.
An important part of buying local includes eating what’s in season in your area, which minimizes the miles your food has to travel and ensures that you get the freshest ingredients. “Sure, you can go to Whole Foods in February or March and get ingredients for a caprese salad,” explains Ann Cooper, author of Bitter Harvest and founder of the Food Family Farming Foundation, “but it’s not as delicious, and it’s not what you should be buying.”
By sticking to the produce that grows fresh in your area, whether it’s butternut squash in autumn or ramps in the spring, you’ll do better by the planet.
Of course, not everyone has access to year-round local organic food, so that’s where personal decisions come in. Toward that end, remember that organic is always better than conventional, according to Diane Hatz, founder of Sustainable Table, an online resource that educates consumers about making better food choices. Given the vast benefits of supporting your community farmer, local food from a small family farm is better than conventional, too.
Grow Your Own
It doesn’t get more local than this. Sure, you’re probably not going to grow enough food to feed your family every night. But if you have a wee bit of outdoor space or a windowsill, you can grow something.
Start simply and look to culinary staples, such as basil and rosemary. It’s more satisfying to walk a few feet and pluck leaves for dinner than to drive to the store for herbs grown thousands of miles away and encased in plastic. Other relatively easy items to grow at home include tomatoes, beans and salad greens. (You may want to try starting with tomato starter plants from the nursery before advancing to seed sowing, as they take a fair amount of time to grow.)
Choose Your Drinks Wisely
It’s not just what you eat that matters. All those pesticides and chemical fertilizers used to produce food also go into making your juice, milk, coffee, tea, wine and cocktails. On top of that, coffee often grows on land where rainforests once thrived. (Clear-cutting allows the sun to reach the plants so they’ll grow faster.) By destroying rainforests, we’re not only increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but also potentially sending half of all bird species in those areas into extinction.
Luckily, we now have access to a range of planet-friendly beverages, including organic and shade-grown coffee — and they have a huge ecological impact. For instance, if half of North America’s 15 million college students chose organic, shade-grown coffee, they would prevent 3,885 tons of chemical fertilizers and 660 tons of pesticides from poisoning the earth.
Take note, however: Some “shade-grown-coffee” companies cultivate their beans under a monoculture of a single heavily pruned tree species, which offers little habitat for birds and other wildlife. To ensure your bag of Joe promotes honest biodiversity, look for one that sports the Rainforest Alliance or Bird Friendly seal.
If you enjoy a glass of wine from time to time, ask your local wine store about organic options. With increasing demand for eco-friendly red and white wines — according to the Wine Market Council, organic wine sales jumped 29 percent in 2007 from the previous year — the shop should have a selection.
You might see USDA-certified bottles as well as those that say “Made with organic grapes” on display. The main difference? The former can’t contain any added sulfites — a controversial requirement, as wines produced without added sulfites are less stable and more prone to spoiling unless stored at a constant 55 degrees. But consumers with allergies to these preservatives do better going organic. Other alcohols, including beer and vodka, have entered the organic market, making this yet another realm of organics that’s enjoying a rise in popularity.
Be Takeout Savvy
Yes, to be really green, you would always cook at home with produce from your garden, but sometimes that’s not possible. So when you do need to order takeout, cut the extra waste. After all, how many packets of soy sauce does one person need?
Next time you order, decline the paper napkins; if every American gave up one paper napkin a day, we’d save a billion pounds of paper from going to landfills each year. Also decline plastic utensils, condiment packets, and chopsticks; the latter costs China about 25 million trees a year to make. And ask if you can bring your own container and have them fill it for you. Some places like Starbucks will even give you a discount when you bring your own mug.
Finally, encourage your favorite takeout joints to switch to biodegradable and eco-friendly packaging and utensils.
Ask for Sustainable Seafood
This one’s trickier, because there’s no organic certification for standard fish. With some species now being fished to near-extinction, however, it’s a crucial step. “Scientists have determined that if we continue fishing the way we are, we could eliminate all species of edible fish by 2048,” explains Sheila Bowman of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.
The way we capture seafood doesn’t stop at harming fish populations. High demand for Chilean sea bass, for instance, has led to unregulated catch methods, which ruin the fish’s deep-sea habitat and imperils threatened seabirds, such as the albatross.
What can you do? Choose seafood that reproduces in great numbers and that fisheries obtain without damage to any natural habitat, such as Dungeness crab in season and wild Alaskan salmon. Alaskan black cod (aka sablefish) makes a tasty alternative to Chilean sea bass, serves as a great source of omega-3s, and its populations are constantly managed to remain abundant.
Wean Yourself Off the (Water) Bottle
Americans go through an estimated 70 million-plus water bottles a day, and a mere 14 percent of those bottles gets recycled. It’s not just that they’re taking up space in our landfills. Manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of them consumes vast quantities of oil, says Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.
What’s more, the manufacturing of plastic bottles actually requires twice the water than the bottles will ultimately contain. We can easily get our H2O fix another way: from the tap. If you’re concerned about safety, have your water tested at a certified lab; visit epa.gov/safewater/labs to find one near you.
Giving up the bottle is easy once you make it a habit. Try putting your reusable bottle on your wallet/phone/keys checklist for when you leave the house. Stainless-steel and coated aluminum bottles make a durable, stylish choice, with companies such as Klean Kanteen and Sigg offering a range of sizes and designs. Steer clear of hard-polycarbonate bottles, marked with the resin code 7 on the bottom; they can contain bisphenol A, an endocrine disrupter and possible carcinogen.
Most of the food we consume has gone through processing in one form or another, whether it’s the simple act of canning tomatoes or the more complicated operation behind making soda. In fact, almost 30 percent of the energy the food industry uses goes into taking raw ingredients and turning them into the products we find on store shelves. To preserve freshness, these ingredients have to undergo precise heating, cooling, and dehydration methods — all of which consume tremendous amounts of energy.
Eliminating all processed foods could cut your food-related carbon footprint by almost a third. By sticking with whole vegetables, grains, and other raw ingredients, you can make an impact and add healthier foods to your diet. Of course, no one expects you to start churning your own butter, but when it’s a choice between that frozen TV dinner (even an organic one) and making a fresh meal from scratch, opt for the latter.
Eat Less Meat
Sure, the protein in that steak might fuel you, but do you know how much energy it took to make it? A cow has to eat 8 pounds of corn and soy grain to yield 1 pound of meat, and growing all that grain requires artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The making of these agricultural chemicals consumes roughly 40 percent of the food-production energy — and it takes even more fuel to transport feed to livestock operations. Plus there’s the methane issue: The methane emitted by cows is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
When it comes to meat overconsumption, the United States ranks among the worst offenders: We eat an average of 8 ounces of meat daily — that’s more than twice the amount that people in developing countries consume. With health experts emphasizing the benefits of whole grains and vegetables in our diets, our carnivorous-focused approach to mealtime doesn’t make sense.
One study from the University of Chicago shows that a vegetarian diet is more energy-efficient than meat-, fish-, and poultry-inclusive diets. But you needn’t completely forgo meat. Even a shift from two hamburgers to one a week can reduce your food-related footprint.
When you do want to occasionally include meat at a meal, turn to grass-fed, pasture-raised beef and pork. Cows especially require a grass- and legume-based diet; their digestive systems don’t tolerate grain well. Pasture-raised cow meat not only benefits the animal, it also contains less fat, a better balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and more vitamins, making it healthier for you to eat. And the manure that pasture-raised animals produce goes toward nourishing the soil — not into the earth-unfriendly waste lagoons associated with industrial farms.
Eat Less of Everything
If this were as simple as it sounds, we wouldn’t have an obesity problem in this country. Americans’ portion sizes keep growing, and so do our waistlines. No matter how “green” our food is, each bite takes its toll on the environment through production, packaging and transport.
So cutting down — by preparing and ordering less, not just tossing out what’s left on your plate — automatically reduces your carbon footprint, not to mention your caloric intake. One eat-less strategy: Drink a glass of water before a meal. The water fills you up and takes care of dehydration, which the body can misinterpret as hunger. Also, know how much food your body really needs to operate. The USDA makes this easy to figure out with an individualized food pyramid.
When you go out to eat, keep portion sizes reasonable by ordering a salad and appetizer instead of an appetizer and an entree. Finally, avoid mindless eating and snacking by taking time to enjoy your food in peace, away from distractions, like the television or computer, that might have you unconsciously consuming more than you intended.