If you are concerned with how your diet impacts the environment, there are a lot of things you can do to have a more climate friendly diet. Most of these things are also good for your health, and believe it or not, many of them will actually save you money. Here is a list of what we do to prioritize eating sustainably, in order of most important to least. You might not be able to do it all, but you can do what you can in the moment. This isn’t an all or nothing thing. Everything helps. Reject AllOrNothingism in your dietary choices.
It takes a lot of work and energy to get food to your table, so the best thing you can do to make your diet sustainable is to use that food efficiently. Try not to let food go to waste. Don’t buy and cook more than you need, eat your leftovers, etc. Also, look for getting more than one use out of food items, such as by saving bacon grease to cook with and boiling bones and veggie scraps for broth. And of course, don’t forget to compost!
Additional benefits: saves money
Eat less animal products
I don’t know how much animal protein you eat currently, but if you are like most Americans, it’s probably way too much for your health or the environment. Cutting back on all those animal products is one of the best things you can do for the climate as well as your health. Replace animal products with veggies, fruits, nuts, and whole grains as much as possible. For some people, this will mean cutting meat and/or dairy products out entirely, but I suspect most people are like me, and don’t see themselves giving up all meat and dairy. That’s okay. Even a reduction in the amount of animal products you eat makes a big impact. We do that by eating meat at fewer meals, and eating smaller portions of meat in the meals where meat is included. Now I’m starting to work on reducing my dairy consumption as well. I don’t think I’ll ever eliminate dairy, but I don’t think it will be too tough to cut back. Start small. Try doing meat free Monday. You can build up from there to whatever level works best for you.
Additional benefits: saves money, good for you
When eating meat, choose less beef
If you are going to continue eating meat, beef is probably the worst choice, environmentally. In a study that compared beef to other animal proteins, beef was found to be ten times worse than the rest. Beef uses the most resources for the least meat (meaning it takes more feed, water, and land to produce a pound of beef than it does to produce a pound of any other meat), creates the most pollution, and contributes the most to climate change. This is why we’ve majorly cut back on beef at the Rocking Homestead. Also, beef is really expensive, and it’s probably not the healthiest meat choice.
Additional benefits: saves money, good for you
Buy as local as possible/grow your own
The amount of fossil fuels it takes to transport food is no joke. Foods that must be refrigerated during shipping are especially carbon intensive. You can cut down on that by buying as much of your food as close to home as you can. I’m not talking about doing a hundred mile diet or anything like that, but just doing the best you can. For me, that means growing as much of my own veggies as I can, buying from local food producers/farmers when I am able, and choosing the food from the closest location at the grocery store. I choose California avocados over Florida avocados, when I have the choice, for example. As a general rule, also, I won’t buy produce from further south than Mexico. This means I abstain from certain fruits during certain times of year, no grapes in January, and so forth.
I would love to be able to buy all of the food that is possible to grow here from local farmers, but I just can’t afford that. Things like CSA’s might save you money in the long run, but they require you to pay all that money up front in one lump payment, which is just out of reach for many people. And farmers markets aren’t always easy to get to, can be more expensive than the grocery store, and don’t run all year here. Maybe one day I’ll be able to improve the locality of my diet, but for now I’m doing the best I can with what I have, and I encourage everyone else to do the best they can in this moment as well. Every little bit helps.
Additional benefits: this is tricky, growing your own can be cheaper, but purchasing locally can be more expensive, so it all depends. Local food tends to taste better and have better nutrient levels (though not always).
When you buy animal products, buy grass finished/pastured animal products
This is fairly expensive, but it’s important because while conventional animal husbandry creates a lot of methane, which contributes a great deal to climate change, animals raised on pasture tend to emit a great deal less, and may even help sequester carbon. One reason for this is because animals, particularly rumients like cows, goats, and sheep, are raised eating grains, it tends to upset their digestive system and cause them to emit more methane (fun fact, this is a nice and scientific way of saying they burp and fart more, and have much more foul crap). These animals didn’t evolve to eat grain, they evolved to eat grass. Grains, of course, are the seeds of grasses, so it’s not like it’s poison to rumiants, but the bulk of their food should be the grass leaves, not grass seeds. In the case of things like chickens, they evolved to eat some grain, but also some leaves, and some bugs. In addition to burping and farting less, animals raised on pasture tend to be healthier, for a whole slew of reasons, such as eating an optimal diet for their health, having more space to move and get exercise, having more space to prevent the spread of infectious disease, etc. This means that fewer antibiotics need to be used on these animals, which helps fight antibiotic resistance. Their poop and pee tends to be less of an issue for the environment as well in these conditions, since it tends to be spread lightly over a large area in fresh air and sunlight with all the composting forces of the ecosystem working to break it down. Compare that to a CAFO, where the animals are all chilling in cess pools of their own excrement and literally nothing else. You can imagine that concentrated mass of piss and crap decomposes a lot differently than random turds sprinkled throughout a vast area of prairie, and it means a very different experience as far as pollution and infectious disease (not to mention smell and methane production). Finally, managed grazing can help grow prairie grasses in a way that actually helps to sequester carbon, similarly to the way trees do, with deep, long lived roots.
Not only are pastured animals better for the environment, but the products that come from them are better for you as well. The meat tends to be leaner, and of the fat that is in it, a higher percentage of it is omega 3 fatty acids, fats that are crucial for several bodily functions, including brain development and keeping your blood at optimal thinness, and that most Americans are deficient in. The same holds true for non meat products from pastured animals, such as dairy and eggs, they tend to have a higher percentage of omega 3 fatty acids. They also tend to have better vitamin content, and many would argue better flavor. Further, the animals raised this way have happier lives, if that sort of thing is important to you. I know it is for me.
Unfortunately, pastured animals need a lot more square footage than conventionally produced animals, and take somewhat longer to get to market weight when being grown for meat. This means pastured animal products are much more expensive than conventional. I’m not saying this cost isn’t worth it, it is, but it’s understandable if not everyone can afford it. We cannot at this point in our lives. I’m hoping that as I start working and our garden expands, we can. Until then, I focus on these other things above this, and try not to worry too much.
Additional benefits: Healthier for you, better for animal welfare.
Organic is the last thing on the list, I actually believe it to be the least important. It’s still a good thing to do, if you can, but it can be prohibitively expensive. Organic can mean a wide variety of things, while there are specific standards that have to be met to earn certification, some producers may meet those standards but not be certified because the certification process is cost prohibitive. Some farmers might go above and beyond the standards, others might do the bare minimum to meet them. It’s hard to tell which is which when buying at the grocery store, and even sometimes the farmers market. The perception is that organic is better for the environment and your health because of reduced pesticide use, but this may or may not be the case, depending on the producer. Some pesticides are still allowable under most organic certification standards, and just because a pesticide is “natural” doesn’t mean that it kills any fewer organisms in the soil or ecosystem. It doesn’t even mean that it’s better for you to consume. So why do I still advocate for organic? Because I support the ethos of Keep It In The Ground, and most synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and in particular, fertilizers, are fossil fuel based. Haber process fertilizers, especially, are a primary concern for me, since they are made of natural gas, the production of which causes large volumes of methane (a greenhouse gas several times more potent than CO2) to be released into the atmosphere under the best of circumstances. Under the worst, it looks like that gas leak in California.
Plus, organic farming is generally better for the soil, as confirmed by this study published this month in the Journal of Nature Plants. Strong, healthy soil is a remarkable carbon sink, and while carbon sequestration isn’t going to make it so we don’t have to stop burning fossil fuels, it is still important that we do what we can to sequester as much as we can, in addition to transitioning off dirty energy. We are already past 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, and the upper safe limit is 350 ppm. If we want to bring that back down to safe levels, we need to be sequestering in addition to stopping burning. Not only does good soil sequester more carbon, but it also makes farms and landscapes more drought resilient, a problem many farmers will be coping with as climate change progresses. So organic food production can not only help repair climate change, but also make us better able to withstand it’s worst effects while we are working towards repair.
Still, if cost is an issue for you, organic should be your last priority. All of these other actions will make more of an impact, for far less money. Choosing organic is more along the lines of choosing a fuel efficient car, the idea is to minimize how many fossil fuel profits are being made off of your purchase. If you can afford some organic, I prioritize organic produce first, because it’s usually the least expensive of all organic things. I would like a dirty dozen style list that focuses on what crops use the most fertilizers, but as far as I’m aware, such a list does not exist. Maybe with research I can make one, but that probably won’t happen while I’m still in school.
Additional benefits: might reduce risk of pesticide exposure, depending on farming methods used.
This is how I prioritize things to make my diet as sustainable as possible. What would you add to the list? Where would you rank it?
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