Consider this: According to the World Wildlife Federation, up to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from the food system, while 60 percent of forest loss is due to agriculture. If things don't change, scientists predict that that the food industry's ill effects on the planet could be up to 90 percent greater by 2050. Yikes.
Of course, eating sustainably is easier said than done, especially if you don't have unlimited funds. A 2014 study in the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health found that a basket of healthy, sustainable food costs about 30 percent more than a traditional basket. This amounts to about 48 percent of a low-income household's weekly paycheck. While the study was specific to Australia, sustainably sourced meats, fish, and vegetables are generally perceived to be more expensive in other parts of the world as well.
And then there's the fact that eco-friendly food isn't readily available in all parts of the country. "One of the biggest barriers to eating healthy, sustainable food is simply lack of access," says Sam Polk, founder and CEO of Everytable—a fast-casual food company that brings these types of foods into underserved areas. "A food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), approximately 23.5 million people in the United States live in food deserts, and nearly half of these food deserts are in low-income, impoverished areas." In these parts, you'd be hard-pressed to find a conventionally grown apple, let alone one that's grown using chemical-free pesticides on a farm that pays workers a premium.
Grim statistics like this make it seem like it's impossible to eat in a way that's good for the planet, unless you're rolling in cash and have a health-food store within walking distance. But that's not entirely the case—there are things we all can do to eat more sustainably, regardless of location or bank balance.
First things first: What does it actually mean to eat sustainably?
Short answer: It's complicated. This is a hotly debated topic—some experts believe organic farming is better for the planet than conventional growing, while others swear it's the other way around. It's important to note that our diets are also just one piece of the equation when it comes to the food industry's impact on the planet, and switching up our shopping habits alone won't be enough to make real change.
But if there's one thing that lots of people agree on, it's that livestock farming can be problematic for the environment. For one thing, farm animals—and cattle in particular—are responsible for about 40 percent of methane gas emissions in the United States. (Methane is one of the most powerful greenhouse gasses contributing to climate change.) Livestock farming also uses a lot of water—it takes around 1,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. Then, there's the fact that animal manure can run off into waterways near farms, causing toxicity in the H2O supply.
It's often argued that grass-feeding cattle is better for the environment, because this practice can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, among other benefits. "Well-managed cattle sequester carbon, increase biodiversity, and help to improve the soil, making rainfall more effective," says Diana Rodgers, RD, founder of Sustainable Dish. But one recent study showed that it's not enough to offset the methane produced over the cow's lifespan. 'This report concludes that grass-fed livestock are not a climate solution," wrote study co-author Tara Garnett, PhD, founder of the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford University. "Grazing livestock are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock."
Seafood is thought to be a slightly better choice, from a climate perspective, and yet overfishing remains a big issue. Both wild-caught and farmed fish have their upsides and downsides, depending on the fishing or farming practices used. When it comes to wild-catching, sustainability depends on the number of fish caught, says Sonja Brodt, PhD, of UC Davis' Agricultural Sustainability Institute. "There's a calculation of what’s a sustainable amount you can take in order for that fish population to continue on year after year." This varies from species to species, but tuna are particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
"Organic does not always meant the most sustainable—for instance, fossil fuel use is still an issue on organic farms."—Sonja Brodt, PhD
Farmed fish aren't always the best option—according to the World Wildlife Federation, seafood farms can be disruptive to the ocean ecosystem in lots of different ways—but they aren't all bad. "There are some good farmed fish that are done pretty sustainably—in that case it often has to do with how high on the food chain they are," says Dr. Brodt. "Fish that are plant eaters can be more sustainably farmed without having inputs that are themselves energy-intensive." For instance, since salmon require a lot of protein to thrive, farmers need to either go out and catch lots of smaller fish for them to eat—to the detriment of those species—or feed them a commodity crop like soy.
As for produce, we often automatically think that organic is more sustainable than the alternative, and this type of farming does come with some benefits. Conventional farms have been found to use more energy than organic farms, while the chemical fertilizers and pesticides they use can have a detrimental affect on the ecosystem. (Not that organic farms don't use their own chemicals, because the larger ones often do, and these can have their own negative environmental impact.) Plus, organic farms are more likely to engage in practices like complex crop rotation—switching up which crops are grown on a certain patch of land from year to year—which has been found to improve soil quality and biodiversity.
But, according to Dr. Brodt, "Organic does not always mean the most sustainable—for instance, fossil fuel use is still an issue on organic farms." It's also not correct to assume that conventional farms are all destroying the planet. In fact, a growing number of industrial farms are adopting sustainable growing practices, with promising results. What's more, some people claim that conventional farming is more sustainable than organic farming because it yields a lot more food—we wouldn't be able to feed the world's growing population without it, they say.
Why isn't sustainable food as accessible as conventionally grown food?
Simply put, it costs more to grow food in the most eco-friendly way, which is why that food costs more at the grocery store. Factory farms growing commodity crops tend to get government subsidies—paid for with our tax dollars—that smaller, sustainability-first farms don't often receive. Farms that prize sustainability may also pay their workers more, pay a premium for natural pest and weed control solutions, or maintain better living conditions for their livestock. Organic and sustainable farms' output also tends to be much lower, since they're smaller and their methods are more time and labor intensive.
It's also often a case of demand outpacing supply. For instance, while consumer demand for organic produce is growing, only 1.1 percent of the world's farmland is organic. There's also more demand than supply for conventional produce. Even if everyone in America decided to switch to a plant-forward diet today, production of fruit and vegetables isn't high enough right now to accommodate that.
"You cant necessarily fix the affordability issue in the food system because farmers are stuck with the prices they get from processors and retailers," points out Brodt. "You can't just expect the farmers to charge less for their food because there aren't many farmers living very high on the hog." As such, the price of more sustainably grown foods isn't likely to change any time soon.
How can you limit your footprint if you have limited access to sustainable food?
Be more mindful of your meat intake
This is the number-one thing that experts recommend if you want to eat for the environment—there's even a new "planetary health diet" built around it—because meat has a disproportional impact when compared to other food sources. Keep in mind that cows are responsible for over half of methane emissions from livestock, so cutting back on beef and dairy consumption alone can help.
One caveat: This doesn't necessarily mean opting for just any processed, plant-based meat substitute, says Rodgers. "People should not assume that because something is 'plant based' that it’s necessarily healthier or more sustainable. There are plant-based proteins like fake burgers, but these are ultra-processed and the product of an industrial monocrop agriculture system that is far from sustainable." That said, products created with sustainability in mind, like the Impossible Burger, have still been found to have a smaller footprint than beef, all things considered.
Seek out food that's fresh, local, and in season when possible
This cuts down on emissions from transporting food long distances. Although "local" and "seasonal" are usually associated with mega dollar signs, they don't have to be expensive. Several programs across the country are now allowing people to use SNAP benefits at farmer's markets, which are often more affordable than retailers anyway. (One study found that, in Vermont, farmers market produce cost nearly 40 percent less than the grocery store.) There are also a growing number of organizations, like the Skid Row People's Market in Los Angeles, that are bringing fresh, local, affordable produce into corner stores in food deserts.
If you aren't buying local or seasonal produce, Dr. Brodt suggests opting for canned and dried versions, because fresh and frozen foods require extra energy to keep them cold in transport.
Buy from affordable brands that prioritize sustainability
Everytable is one to watch in Southern California—its prepared meals are made with locally sourced produce and sustainably farmed salmon, and meals are priced lower at its locations in lower-income communities. All leftover food is donated to pantries and shelters, while the brand is also working on creating 100-percent compostable packaging by 2022. Elsewhere in the country, Walmart is doing big things to make its food offerings more eco-friendly—the company has asked its food suppliers to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of a broader sustainability initiative.
Limit your food waste
Studies have found that minimizing food waste has a bigger impact on the environment than changing your diet. Some tips from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency include planning your meals in advance and buying only the ingredients you need, storing food so it stays fresh longer, and using leftovers instead of throwing them away. Pro tip: Make this sweet potato gnocchi and your food waste is pretty much guaranteed to be zero.
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