Choosing to purchase foods grown in a sustainable manner may seem like a trivial change, but with the food industry producing about 31% of global greenhouse gas emissions, changing what you consume and where it comes from is a great place to start. But what does it really mean to eat sustainably? It seems simple enough- when possible, choose local food grown without pesticides- but sometimes the best choice is not clear. For example, the New York Times reports that organic locally grown greenhouse tomatoes can consume 20 percent more resources than tomatoes grown in a distant warm climate, because of the energy needed to run the greenhouse. But even though we may not be able to compare the exact carbon footprint of every food we consider, we can make a huge dent in our ecological impact by making some basic changes in our diet and buying practices.
1. Become a locavore! Supporting local, small-scale sustainable agriculture does more than put
the freshest foods on your plate. The food consumed in the US travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate. By purchasing locally, we can dramatically reduce the fossil fuels used to transport food all over the country and the globe. Your food dollars are kept in the local economy, keeping small, independent family farms afloat. Try your local farmer's market , join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, or ask your supermarket to stock items grown locally if they do not already.
Eating locally does not have to mean excluding all products grown far away (foregoing one’s morning coffee might be a stretch), but you can start by eliminating two or three foods that must travel the farthest to reach you- for instance, strawberries in January if you live in the Northeast.
Here are some resources for discovering what foods are in season where you live:
National Resources Defense Council
2. Canning isn’t just for your grandmother anymore. Try preserving your favorite fruits and vegetables when they are in season so you can enjoy them year-round. Freezing, drying, or putting vegetables in a root cellar can be less intimidating than canning for beginners. Most vegetables can be blanched (quickly boiled or steamed), plunged into cold water, drained, and then frozen in plastic freezer bags or plastic freezer containers (make sure to leave room for expansion). You can even invite friends over to help and make it a canning party!
The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a bounty of information on canning, freezing, drying, and more.
Or check out the Eat Local Challenge - a group blog including “Eating from the Pantry”
3. Go (semi) vegetarian. The livestock industry accounts for about eighteen percent of global
greenhouse gas emissions- even more than transportation. It takes about ten times the fossil fuels to produce a calorie of meat than a calorie of plant food. Keep in mind that eating less meat does not have to mean eating no meat. You can start by consuming chicken, fish, or eggs instead of red meat for one day of the week. This alone is the equivalent of cutting out 760 miles of driving. Changing from red meat to fruits, vegetables, and grains for one day a week is equal to reducing 1,160 miles of driving, and becoming a vegetarian trims the equivalent of a whopping 8,100 miles of driving! Don’t worry about a lack of protein- there are many non-meat protein sources. You can also try free range and grass-fed meats instead of meat from factory livestock production systems. Free range and grass-fed livestock operations use much less resources and usually create better-tasting meats.
Seafood Watch helps you choose seafood that is harvested sustainably
4. Purchase foods that have been grown sustainably. This could mean organic, but not
necessarily. Many small farms do not have the resources to become certified organic yet still grow food sustainably using organic practices. Ask farmers at your local farmer's market about their growing practices. Check out our Guide to Sustainable Agriculture to learn more about what happens on a sustainable farm.
5. Start a garden. What could be more local than your own backyard? There are seemingly endless benefits to turning a part of your lawn into a garden. Imagine fresh vegetables and herbs
plucked just before cooking, the assurance that your produce is free from pesticides, and the money saved by growing your own- not to mention the fun of digging in the dirt. If you lack garden space, try growing some vegetables (like tomatoes) in pots on your porch or balcony. Michael Pollan offers inspiration for budding gardeners. For more practical advice, begin with the BBC's advice on starting a garden. If you live in a city, find your nearest community garden. Look here for information on starting your own compost pile.
6. Choose less processed foods with little packaging. The processing and packaging of food is one of the most energy intensive aspects of the food production process. A one-pound can of fruits or vegetables takes an average of 261 kilocalories to process, plus another 1,000 kilocalories from
packaging. In addition, large amounts of energy and raw materials are required to produce the packaging that individually wraps many foods, and extra packaging adds more waste to landfills. Purchasing foods from the bulk section of a supermarket is a great way to reduce packaging.
7. Use up those leftovers!
About a third of the food we buy ends up being thrown out. Wasting
less food and composting your food scraps can go a long way. Love Food Hate Waste offers advice on reducing your food waste and gives recipes for leftovers.
More Sustainable Food Resources
Take a Bite Out of Climate Change - Details the connection between food production and the climate crisis
Sustainable Table - All about the sustainable food movement
Slow Food - A movement reimagining our food system
Local Harvest - Connecting consumers to the best organic and sustainably grown food close to home
Eat Well Guide - A directory of sustainable meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, and other outlets in the U.S. and Canada
What to Eat - A blog by Marion Nestle, nutritionist and author of What To Eat and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
Eat Local Challenge - A group blog about local eating- including tips for eating local on a budget
Eat Low Carbon - CO2 Calculator for your food
Sustainable Food News - Source of daily news and market information for the organic, sustainable and natural food industries
New York Times Magazine Green Issue
The Meatrix - A film about factory farming
Sustainable Eating - An online magazine exploring sustainable food
The True Cost of Food - A short movie about sustainable food
100 Mile Diet - Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon spent a year eating from within 100 miles of their home
“How Far Does Your Food Travel to get to Your Plate?” The Center for Urban
Education about Sustainable Agriculture.
“About Food Waste.” Love Food Hate Waste.
Murray, Danielle. “Oil and Food: A Rising Security Challenge." Earth Policy Institute.
9 May 2005.
Pimentel, David and Marcia Pimentel. “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based
diets and the environment.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78 (September 2003): 660S-663S.
Sorrow, April Reese and Elizabeth L. Andress. “Freezing Summer’s Bounty.”
National Center for Home Food Preservation. March 2004.
Stein, Adam. “Cutting the Carbon from Your Diet.” Terrapass. 27 May 2008.
Taylor, Tess. “Is Local Always Better?” The New York Times Magazine. 20 April 2008.
Information compiled by Rose Anderson-Gips, Sustainability Intern, Summer 2008