What is “food sustainability”? It’s basically the art, the ability to feed people without damaging the environment; with concern for animal welfare, soil and water quality, the individuals and communities involved in the production of that food and food safety.
Maintaining a sustainable table can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort. Food consumption in a typical U.S. household leaves a huge carbon footprint. Annually, it results in a whopping 8.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
But what makes a food sustainable? For produce, it depends on how it is grown, whether organically or with chemical pesticides. For animal-based products, it depends on how the animals are fed and raised and their quality of life. For all foods, it depends on how the production of that food affects the people who raise it and if it adversely impacts the land where it’s grown. Then there’s the element of distance: How much fuel was burned to deliver that food to your plate?
That’s a lot to think about! You have to weigh numerous factors when deciding what sustainable eating looks like to you. And with so many options, how do we make the best choices? Get some insight, below, on the popular food groups and how they fare on the sustainability scale.
Meat: Most meats found in your local supermarket aren’t sustainable. Red meat is responsible for 10-40 times the greenhouse gas emissions of most veggies and grains. It takes a lot of energy and water to keep an animal alive and generally, the production and distribution of meat aren’t sustainable processes. If you’re buying locally-raised, free range or organic meats, then you’re cutting out much of the carbon footprint. These meats, however, generally come with a much higher price tag. But for the Earth-conscious carnivore, they’re worth it.
Produce: Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season in the area where you live. If you reside in a location that has little farming, choose fruits and vegetables that are in season for your region, and therefore have a shorter path to your plate. If you live in Topeka and you’re eating mangosteen grown in Malaysia, you’re not doing the planet nor your personal carbon footprint any favors.
Grains: Climate change and land use studies show that a vegetarian or vegan diet is more sustainable than a diet which includes meat or relies heavily on meat products. A diet rich in whole grains is far more sustainable than other diets, as grains use less water and energy to produce than other food groups. Think quinoa, barley, wheat, rye and buckwheat.
Coffee: It’s likely that no one’s growing coffee near your home. That said, coffee that’s labeled organic, fair trade and Rainforest Alliance are deemed sustainable. You can also buy shade-grown, fair-trade coffee and enjoy the beautiful, fragrant drink with less guilt. Buying coffee which is grown as close to you as possible will cut down on carbon emissions from transportation and distribution.
In short, to keep your diet sustainable, purchase local foods in season from local farmers. While it can be a little challenging to initiate sustainable food practices, once you get the hang of it and develop a blueprint for your needs, you’ll find it rewarding to give back to the planet with each meal.
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