When you think about sustainable food, what comes to mind?
According to Stanford, sustainability is “managing and protecting Earth’s natural resources, ecosystems, climate, and atmosphere so that current and future generations will have the things they need to live a decent life.”
When identifying what foods are sustainable, sustainable foods achieve this by preserving the earth's natural resources during production, consumption, or disposal.
Approximately 9% of the global population is considered food insecure, and this can lead to undernourishment by not consuming enough protein, fats, and micronutrients that are all part of a healthy diet. Undernourishment is also a leading risk factor for death and health-related problems in mothers and children.
This is SERIOUS. The UN has a global goal to “end world hunger by 2030” as part of its sustainable development goals.
What foods are sustainable and why?
Understanding the most sustainable foods requires us to look at each stage of our global food system, starting with production!
Hundreds of millions of hectares of forests are being converted to farmland to feed our growing population (currently at 8 billion people). According to ClientEarth, forest conversion, largely driven by the trade of agricultural products like palm oil, beef, and soy, can negatively impact the environment.
These include reduced global biodiversity, forests' ability to absorb carbon dioxide, and increased conflicts over local communities’ land rights and land tenure.
Modern food production also requires a lot of chemicals (like fertilizers and pesticides). These can negatively impact the surrounding environment if not managed properly, leading to eutrophication.
Producers that sustainably grow food try to mitigate some of these issues by working with local communities and minimizing or offsetting their impact on biodiversity and the climate.
For example, Fair-Trade Certified foods, such as coffee, tea, and chocolate, help producers in developing countries receive a fair price for their products and have decent working conditions.
When considering consumption and food sustainability, you, as a consumer, can also make more sustainable choices to take your zero-waste kitchen to the next level.
Many eco-food brands offer sustainable food packaging alternatives to help you ditch the plastic, like beeswax wraps or mason jars. I love to reuse mason jars to shop at bulk food stores (did you know you can even buy bulk food online?). You could also use non-toxic cookware or food waste apps like Too Good To Go.
Disposal is another important part of the food sustainability story.
How we dispose of our food (and its packaging) can significantly impact our collective carbon footprints. For example, when you compost your food waste at home, you can help divert organic waste that would have otherwise gone to a landfill and turned into methane (a powerful greenhouse gas).
If these concepts are new, I suggest familiarizing yourself with the 5 R’s of zero waste!
Which kinds of food are the most sustainable food choices?
Organic Fruits and Vegetables
Organic produce is often grown on smaller farms that use sustainable agricultural practices where the benefits include:
- Reduced Chemical Footprint: Unlike conventional farming methods, organic farming shuns synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These chemicals can leach into the ground, contaminating groundwater, harming beneficial insects, and disrupting the ecosystem's natural balance. By avoiding these harmful agents, organic farming ensures that the soil remains healthy, water sources remain pure, and biodiversity thrives.
- Soil Health and Biodiversity: Soil is the lifeline of agriculture. Organic farms prioritize soil health by using natural fertilizers like compost and covering cropping and mulching techniques. These practices enrich the soil and improve its structure, promoting water retention and reducing erosion. Biodiverse farms, which are common in organic settings, also encourage a variety of plants and animals to coexist, creating a robust and resilient ecosystem.
- Sustainable Agricultural Practices: Many organic farms operate on a smaller scale than industrial farms. These smaller farms often adopt traditional and sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation, intercropping, and agroforestry. Crop rotation, for instance, involves growing different crops in succession on the same piece of land. This prevents soil depletion, disrupts the life cycle of pests, and reduces the need for chemical interventions.
- Local and Seasonal Benefits: Organic produce is often associated with local and seasonal food movements. Consumers can reduce their carbon footprint by purchasing locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. Transporting food over long distances releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Moreover, local, seasonal produce tends to be fresher, retains more nutrients, and supports local economies.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) remain at the forefront of many debates about modern agriculture and food safety. Companies often herald GMOs for their potential to increase crop yields, provide drought resistance, and bolster nutrition. However, the reality is somewhat different.
Contrary to these assertions, there hasn't been a significant market introduction of these purported beneficial traits. Instead, the crux of genetic modification revolves around creating crops resilient to specific herbicides and pesticides, which these corporations produce and sell. Such alterations lead to monumental profits, but at what cost?
The corporate stronghold on seed patenting has gained momentum in pursuing such lucrative gains. By owning patented seeds, companies limit farmers' options, making them heavily reliant on a handful of proprietary seed varieties.
This not only negates the possibility for farmers to collect and reuse seeds, a practice as old as agriculture itself but also diminishes the rich biodiversity of traditional and heirloom seeds. The consequences of this monopoly don't stop at biodiversity; they extend to controlled pricing, augmented food insecurity, and potential food shortages.
It's essential to recognize the profound difference between traditional cross-breeding and GMOs. While the former involves merging genes of related species and has been practiced harmlessly for centuries, GMOs forcefully integrate genes from entirely disparate species, bypassing nature's inherent boundaries.
One of the touted benefits of GMOs is their ability to resist herbicides, but this has inadvertently escalated herbicide usage. As weeds evolve and resist these chemicals, farmers have no choice but to increase their herbicidal applications, further damaging the environment.
The question of GMO safety remains contentious. Their approval often leans on internal studies conducted by the corporations that produce them, lacking transparency, peer review, and scrutiny by independent scientific communities.
For those keen on making informed choices, organic labels like Non-GMO Project Certified, USDA Organic, or Canadian Organic Certified ensure that products are free from genetically modified ingredients.
If buying fully organic isn't feasible, it's wise to be vigilant of ingredients such as corn, canola, soy, and sugar from sugar beets – common culprits in many snacks and processed foods.
Furthermore, when considering cooking oils, eschewing vegetable or canola oils, which frequently contain genetically modified components, in favor of healthier alternatives like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, or sunflower oil, can make all the difference.
Protein and dairy
When it comes to protein and dairy, the conditions under which animals are raised play a pivotal role in determining both the environmental impact and the quality of the product.
Animals allowed to graze freely on pastures, roaming and consuming a natural diet, often present a much lower environmental footprint than those confined in densely packed, industrial farming systems.
This approach to farming reduces the amount of resources, like water and grain, required to sustain the livestock and significantly reduces the emission of greenhouse gases.
Beyond the environmental benefits, pasture-raising animals contribute to a higher quality of life. Animals enjoy more natural behaviors, reduced stress, and generally healthier living conditions in such settings.
This, in turn, often results in food products of superior quality and taste, with meat and dairy from these animals frequently containing higher levels of beneficial nutrients.
However, as with many terms in the food industry, it's crucial to approach the label "pasture-raised" with a discerning eye. The increasing demand for ethical food choices has unfortunately given rise to instances of greenwashing, where claims of sustainable or humane practices are exaggerated or falsely presented.
The term "pasture-raised" is not immune to this, and there have been cases where producers use the word without adhering to its implied standards or obtaining any certification to verify their claims. For the conscientious consumer, this underscores the importance of being informed.
Consistently research brands and farms, check for reputable certifications, and, when possible, engage directly with producers to truly understand how their animals are raised.
Plant-based proteins, including staples like tofu, tempeh, seitan, and the innovative range of plant-based meat alternatives, are swiftly gaining popularity for their health benefits and environmental advantages.
Their production is inherently more resource-efficient, often requiring less land, water, and energy than traditional protein sources.
For example, cultivating soybeans for tofu demands considerably less water and land than many other protein-rich crops. This efficiency becomes even more pronounced when comparing plant-based proteins to the vast resources required for animal-based ones. But most soybeans are GMO- FYI!
Beyond resource allocation, plant-based proteins contribute to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, as plants absorb carbon dioxide during their growth cycle.
Additionally, the rise of plant-based proteins signifies a broader shift in global dietary patterns. As demand for these eco-friendly alternatives surges, there's an implicit reduction in strain on global food supplies. Less land dedicated to intensive farming means more can be present.
Sustainable food certifications:
- USDA Certified Organic
- Non-GMO Project
- American Grassfed Association
- Certified Humane
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Rainforest Alliance
- Marine Stewardship Council logo
- Aquaculture Stewardship Council logo
- Fair-Trade Certified
Other factors to consider when shopping for the most eco-friendly foods:
- Locally-Sourced Foods: Foods grown and consumed locally reduce the need for long-distance transportation, reducing carbon emissions. Local food systems also tend to support smaller-scale farmers who use more sustainable farming practices.
- Seasonal Foods: Foods grown and consumed in appropriate seasons are typically more sustainable. They require fewer resources to grow and are often fresher and more nutritious.
- Heirloom Varieties: Heirloom fruits, vegetables, and grains maintain genetic diversity in our food system and can be more resilient to changing environmental conditions.
Examples of the most environmentally friendly food choices:
Tubers & Root Vegetables: Tubers and root veggies like beets, yams, and sweet potatoes are good for you and the planet! They are naturally drought resistant so they require less watering. As a bonus, they also need less pesticides.
Leafy Greens: Leafy greens grow extremely fast and can be harvested several times within the same growing season. They also tend to grow in many climates, so finding greens locally is easier.
Algae and seaweed: Algae, which can be grown in saltwater and freshwater, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and does not require land and water to grow like traditional vegetable crops. Algae and seaweed can also capture toxins and water pollution when not used for food. How cool!
Mushrooms: Mushrooms are low maintenance and don’t need much space or water to grow. Mushrooms also help to break down and decompose organic matter, making them super important in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils are sustainable food options. They require relatively little water to grow and naturally enrich the soil with nitrogen, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. For example, pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, and dried peas all fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.
Squash: Squashes are often grown in polycultures with corn and beans (a system known as the "three sisters" that's traditional to many Native American peoples). This system reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides.
Kale and Other Brassicas: These nutrient-dense vegetables can grow in various climates and soil types, making them a sustainable choice in many regions.
Hemp: Known for requiring little water and no pesticides, hemp is a sustainable crop that produces seeds high in protein and healthy fats.
Berries: Particularly when grown organically and locally, berries can be a sustainable fruit choice.
Nuts and Seeds: Nuts and seeds have a lower carbon footprint than other animal-based protein sources. Their oils also have many multi-purpose uses, from food to cosmetics and biofuels, making them a very versatile crop.
Figs: Figs have carbon-sequestering properties and require fewer pesticides to grow!
Mussels: Mussels are a sustainable crop since they are low maintenance and can be grown in coastal ocean areas and inland estuaries. Mussels are also filter feeders and can help remove water pollutants.
Amaranth: Amaranth is a highly resilient ancient grain that can grow in poor soil conditions. It's also nutritionally rich, providing protein, fiber, and a range of essential minerals.
Buckwheat: Despite its name, buckwheat is not a wheat type but a gluten-free seed. It's a quick-growing crop that can improve soil health.
Whole Grains: Whole grains like wheat, rice, barley, and oats are energy-dense foods that require fewer resources to produce per calorie compared to most animal-based foods.
Sorghum: This grain is drought-tolerant and can be used in various ways, from baking to brewing.
Quinoa: Like Amaranth, quinoa is an ancient, hardy, drought-resistant grain. It's also a complete protein, making it an excellent addition to plant-based diets.
Free-Range Poultry: Chickens allowed to forage for their food have a lower environmental impact than those raised in confined systems.
Insects: While not commonly consumed in all cultures, insects like crickets and mealworms are extremely efficient at converting feed into protein. They also require far less land and water than traditional livestock.
The Least Sustainable Foods
- Beef: Cattle farming is responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, mainly methane, and requires vast land and water resources.
- Palm Oil: Its production often leads to deforestation, threatening biodiversity, and losing habitats for many endangered species.
- Almonds: Almond farming, especially in places like California, consumes enormous amounts of water, straining already limited resources.
- Rice: Traditional rice paddies produce a significant amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, due to the decomposition of organic matter in submerged fields.
- Bluefin Tuna: Overfishing this species has led to a significant decline in its population, threatening its survival and disrupting marine ecosystems.
- Non-Organic Soy: Large-scale soy farming, especially when not sustainably managed, can lead to deforestation and increased use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
- Lamb: Like cattle, sheep produce methane, and lamb meat has a high carbon footprint, especially considering the amount of meat a single sheep produces compared to larger animals.
- Chicken farming is often considered more environmentally friendly than beef farming, but industrial-scale chicken farming still has significant environmental impacts. Large-scale chicken farms can contribute to deforestation (for feed production), excessive water use, and water pollution from runoff contaminated with waste and antibiotics. The crowded conditions in many commercial poultry operations also raise animal welfare concerns.
- Chocolate: Unsustainable cocoa farming can result in deforestation and poor working conditions, often in countries with less stringent environmental and labor protections.
- Coffee: Non-sustainably produced coffee can lead to deforestation, and traditional farming methods often use significant amounts of water and pesticides.
- Shrimp: Unsustainable shrimp farming has destroyed vital mangrove forests, leading to biodiversity loss and increased carbon emissions.
- Pork production, particularly in large-scale industrialized systems, contributes to environmental issues such as deforestation (for feed production) and water pollution due to waste runoff.
- Cheese: The production of cheese, especially hard cheeses, requires significant amounts of milk. This means that the environmental footprint of cheese can be extensive when considering the water, land, and feed needed for dairy cows and the methane they produce.
- Sugar: Traditional sugarcane farming can lead to deforestation and habitat destruction. Additionally, chemical fertilizers and pesticides in sugar production can harm surrounding ecosystems and water sources. The production process in sugar mills also uses a significant amount of water.
Final thoughts on the best sustainable food choices
Whether you are shopping for fruits, veggies, meats, or seafood, there are sustainable options out on the market if you are looking for trustworthy certifications that cover sustainable attributes like water, chemicals, GMOs, and animal welfare.
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