By Lena Milton
Whether you’re omnivorous, vegetarian, gluten-free, or paleo, our diets have a huge impact on our individual carbon footprints.
The agriculture industry is the single largest industry on the planet, employing over one billion people and occupying 50% of the earth’s habitable land. Advances in agricultural methods and technology have increased food availability and decreased hunger worldwide, but mass-producing food also leads to severe environmental impacts. Carbon emissions, water and soil pollution, human welfare, and habitat are all directly impacted by unsustainable farming practices.
The good news is that sustainable agricultural practices can improve water quality, biodiversity, human health, and provide large-scale conservation impacts. While ultimately the biggest driver of change must come from the agricultural industry, individual consumer action can help push farming in the right direction while also lowering our individual environmental impacts. By being mindful of our food choices and learning about sustainable eating practices, we can help to take care of ourselves and our planet.
5 Tips for Sustainable Eating
Livestock is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. A single cow can emit as much as 220-lbs of methane in a single year through its digestion processes, and with approximately 1 billion heads of cattle across the world, livestock farming causes 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Along with direct emissions, cattle ranching is also a leading cause of worldwide deforestation. Large swaths of land, prominently in the Amazon rainforest, are converted to farmland at increasingly fast rates, with an estimated 10 million acres lost per year. Not only does this reduce carbon sequestration and contribute to climate change, but it also reduces biodiversity through habitat loss.
One of the most efficient ways we can make our diets sustainable is by avoiding meat and other animal products as much as possible. Beef and dairy cattle are the biggest contributors to environmental impacts, but chicken, pork and other animal farms generate large amounts of pollution and methane that contribute to climate change.
Your meat consumption doesn’t have to stop entirely; an imperfect vegetarian is always better than a carnivore. Reduce your meat intake a few times a week and look for sustainably-farmed beef to best mitigate your impact.
The organic label is growing in popularity, with more and more products boasting the USDA certified organic seal. Organic products are cultivated through regenerative farming practices that ensure long-term soil health and water preservation through minimized chemical usage.
Conventional farming practices allow farmers to use as much synthetic chemical application as they see fit, resulting in heavy runoff that contaminates waterways and depletes soil nutrients. Organically-grown products, however, cannot use synthetic chemicals. Fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides must all be natural and biodegradable, and livestock cannot be given any unnecessary antibiotics or growth hormones. Not only is organic food more environmentally-friendly, but it reduces the amount of pesticide residues you consume.
Alongside the organic label, the GLOBALG.AP certification provides an international standard for sustainable farming practices. This internationally recognized certification helps farmers develop and implement sustainable practices at every level of production, from cultivation to sales.
A major problem with our agriculture is distribution. Foods grown on the other side of the world have to be shipped overseas, often resulting in significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption to keep food fresh.
Shopping local is a great way to limit carbon dioxide emissions from long-distance transportation. Local beef is often lower carbon than imported vegan foods, and helps support local farmers instead of international corporations.
Additionally, opting for foods that are grown in-season can drastically reduce the carbon emissions that result from importing long-distance foods and keeping them fresh.
Not all foods are created equal. Going vegan, eating organic, and supporting local are all excellent ways to reduce your environmental impact, but some foods have disproportionately negative impacts on the environment and should be avoided altogether.
Palm oil is a common vegetable oil in many products, including chocolates, butters, spreads, and even shampoos and cosmetic products. Palm oil harvesting is a major driver of global deforestation. Grown primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia, large swaths of critical habitat are cleared for palm oil cultivation, leading to a severe loss of habitat and biodiversity.
Soy is another problem food, with industrial soy fields replacing rainforest habitat in Brazil and Argentina. The problem with soy isn’t with tofu or soy milk, which are typically grown in the US or Europe, but with the industrial soy that’s used as an ingredient in vegetable oils and livestock feed.
Other environmentally problematic foods include fruits and beans like avocados, bananas, chocolate, and coffee, which are commonly grown with unsustainable farming practices in Africa, Central America, and South America. Not only do these foods overtake millions of acres of rainforest and lead to severe air and water pollution, but their cultivation exploits workers through child labor, abuse, and even slavery. Popular brands like Hershey, Mars, and Nestle have recently faced lawsuits for human rights violations and slavery in their chocolate production.
Eliminating these foods from our diets entirely is rarely feasible for everyone, so instead limit your intake as much as practicable and look for fair trade, certified, and locally grown options.
One of the biggest contributors to municipal waste is food. Approximately 30-40% of the food supply goes to waste in the United States, with 31% of food lost at the retailer and consumer levels.
An estimated 63.1 million tons of food waste goes to landfills every year in the US, with discarded food turning into methane and carbon dioxide emissions that significantly enhance the threat of climate change. A significant portion of this food waste comes from retailers being overstocked and sending excess food to landfills. However, we can mitigate our personal food waste by buying consciously and avoiding over-purchasing.
If possible, compost your excess food or send your organic waste to local composting sites like community gardens or local farms.
About the Author
Lena Milton is a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both.