These days, it seems like everyone is starting to think “green.” Recycling cans and plastic, switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs and driving hybrid cars are some of the steps many people are taking to protect our environment. The growing green movement is altering attitudes about food as well. Consumers are eating green and are starting to appreciate the impact that their collective food choices have on the health of the planet.
Eating green is about making daily choices that contribute to a sustainable food system—one that meets the needs of future generations by conserving natural resources today. We can all join together to make simple changes in our daily lives that will collectively have a substantial impact on the environment. Why not start with what you eat and what you buy? Here are the top 10 “eating green” strategies you can adopt that will support a healthier planet.
The perception among many consumers is that organic foods are safer and healthier than conventional foods. Some studies have shown that organic fruits do provide slightly more vitamin C, flavonoids and polyphenols (Mitchell et al. 2007; Williamson 2007), but the overall body of evidence indicates that organic foods are not superior in nutrients compared with conventional foods.
However, in terms of sustaining our environment, it’s a different story. Organic foods differ from conventionally grown foods in the way they are grown, handled and processed, and organic agriculture uses about 30% less fossil fuel than conventional farming (Schardt 2007). This is important because the greenhouse gases produced using fossil fuels are major contributors to global warming. Organic farming emphasizes the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality. There are two other benefits to organic farming: first, it negates the need for harmful fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides; and second, animals are raised on organic feed and not given antibiotics or growth hormones.
Organic foods can now be found in most grocery stores. When shopping, look for the organic seal that tells you the product is at least 95% organic. The seal also means food has not been genetically modified or radiated.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued strict definitions for terms used on organic food labels and packaging (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/ProdHandlers/LabelTable.htm):
- 100% organic: All product ingredients are organic.
- Organic: The product is made with 95%-100% organic ingredients.
- Made with organic ingredients: At least 70% of the ingredients are organic.
Organic food does tend to cost more than conventional food. So is it worth spending the extra money? The Organic Trade Association suggests buying organic versions of whatever foods you eat most often. When that is not possible or affordable, buy organic varieties of the 12 fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest levels of pesticides (see “The Dirty-Dozen Foods to Buy Organic,” below).
Now that organic foods have gone mainstream, some experts suggest that buying food produced locally has an even bigger impact on the environment than it did in the past. In fact, Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD, a consultant with Environmental Nutrition Solutions in Elkhart, Iowa, says that buying locally produced foods is the best way that consumers can contribute to a healthier food system. Most of the food that Americans eat travels an average of about 2,200 miles from farm to table (Pirog & Benjamin 2005), whereas locally grown food (organic or not) travels an average of 56 miles (Pirog & Benjamin 2003). “Locally grown” means that the food travels no more than 100 miles from point of production to point of purchase (www.sustainabletable.org). Fewer miles mean lower levels of fuel emissions and less impact on the environment.
Aside from the environmental benefit, Tagtow says, buying local foods provides fresher, more flavorful food; builds relationships with farmers; and supports local growers and the economy. “It truly is a win-win situation for consumers, farmers and communities,” adds Tagtow.
Many of us are lucky enough to find fresh, local food right in our community. More grocery stores are offering local foods, but for a stronger connection with your food, you can buy straight from the farmer at the grower’s market. You can also participate in community-supported agriculture by paying for a share of a local farm and receiving its bounty throughout the season. Visit the website www.localharvest.org to find farmers’ markets, family farms, co-ops, restaurants and many other sources of sustainably grown food in your area.
You can help reduce environmental waste by paying attention to the way the food is packaged. Buying products that aren’t heavily packaged and bundled in plastic minimizes waste. In an effort to reduce costs and protect the environment, many companies are tweaking packaging designs. You may have noticed that your bottled water and toothpaste container have a shapelier look. Even Wal-Mart has a sustainability packaging plan. You can also help by buying in bulk and choosing foods grown locally.
If you don’t already do so, recycle. It takes less energy to manufacture a recycled product than a new one, so look for packages that have high recycled content and can be recycled themselves. Since recycling rules vary by area, learn more at www.nrc-recycle.org/localresources.aspx. Most places recycle corrugated cardboard, paper bags, paperboard (not coated with glossy finishes, barriers or coatings), glass, aluminum, tin and certain plastics. Look for the recyclable logo (triangle) on packages to see whether a product can be recycled.
Each year, billions of plastic shopping bags end up in landfills where they can take centuries to decompose. It is also worth mentioning that the plastic used for the bags is made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. These facts led the city of San Francisco to ban the use of plastic grocery bags in large supermarkets, starting in March 2007.
Instead of relying on plastic, bring your own reusable bags every time you shop. (It helps to keep them in your vehicle so they are always at hand!) You can now purchase cloth and other reusable bags at many grocery stores. If you are not ready for a baggie-free life, reuse the paper or plastic bags you get from the grocery store.
Buying fair-trade-certified products assures that strict environmental standards are used to help protect forests, prevent erosion and conserve water. It also guarantees fair working conditions and wages for farmers. Most fair-trade coffee is also grown in the shade, under the canopy of natural tropical forests, rather than on deforested land.
Your morning pick-me-up can have an impact beyond your own energy level. Tagtow recommends that consumers “support more fair-trade products by purchasing not only fair-trade coffee and tea but also sugar, chocolate and bananas.”
More Americans are now choosing to buy their water, shelling out more per gallon than they do for gas at the pump. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, bottled water is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry. While some believe that bottled water is a healthier alternative to tap water, others wonder to what extent plastic water bottles are hurting the environment. Bottled-water use is being questioned because it’s an exploding market and yet water is a beverage we can get for free right out of our tap.
According to the Earth Policy Institute, it could take as many as 10 million barrels of oil annually—enough to fuel about 660,000 cars for a year—to make all the plastic water bottles used in the United States (Earth Policy Institute 2006). Unfortunately, only 1 in every 6 of these bottles is recycled (Food & Water Watch 2007).
Consumers spend from 240 to over 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water than they spend on tap water (Olson 1999). So why do we pay so much for something we can get for free? Yes, it may be more portable and convenient. There is also a misconception that bottled water is safer than tap water. But the truth is that bottled water is not any safer than tap (Food & Water Watch 2007). In fact, most brands are simple tap water that has been extra purified. Kick your bottled-water habit by filling your own reusable plastic or metal bottle. When you do opt for bottled water, recycle the container.
Shifting to a plant-based diet makes your plate a little greener. It requires more resources to produce meat (especially beef) than it does to grow plants. The environmental cost of raising food animals is explored in more detail in a book called Six Arguments for a Greener Diet by Michael Jacobson (Center for Science in the Public Interest 2006). According to Jacobson, producing 100 calories of grain-fed beef requires almost 1,600 calories of fossil-fuel energy (Jacobson 2006). Compared with a typical American diet, a low-meat diet uses 41% less energy and generates 37% less in the way of greenhouse gases (Jacobson 2006). The savings are even greater for a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
Moving to a more plant-based diet has health and environmental benefits. True carnivores can cut down by replacing one meat-centered meal a week with a meal that is solely plant-based. If you do eat meat, Tagtow suggests buying it from a local farmer who raises cattle “using a rotational grazing system where both the land and the livestock are certified organic.”
To see how green your diet is and to learn how to make simple changes, check out the “Score Your Diet” feature at www.cspinet.org/EatingGreen/index.html.
Eating Green Tip #8: Seek Out Sustainable Seafood
Climate change, coastal-habitat damage and overfishing (catching fish faster than they can reproduce) are all taking a toll on sea life. According to a major study published in the November 3, 2006, issue of Science, approximately one-third of the world’s commercial fisheries have already collapsed and, unless steps are taken, all fisheries will collapse in less than 50 years (Worm et al. 2006). Not only does this mean there will be no more seafood to eat, but it will also result in a significant loss of jobs and income.
While global efforts need to be mounted to reverse this trend, you can help by buying seafood that is sustainable. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch defines sustainable seafood as “seafood from sources, either fished or farmed, that can exist over the long term without compromising species’ survival or the health of the surrounding ecosystem” (www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp). According to the agency, U.S.-farmed tilapia, catfish and wild-caught Alaskan salmon are sustainable choices that are environmentally friendly. Fish that are not considered sustainable include farmed salmon, Chilean sea bass and albacore tuna. For a detailed list of sustainable seafood, go to the Web page cited above and click on the links under “Which Seafood to Buy and Why.”
By growing your own food, you help cut down on fuel usage and environmental waste. Gardening also promotes physical and mental health, and it can be a fun learning experience for kids. For more infor┬¡mation on the myriad benefits of home gardening, go to the National Gardening Association’s website at www.garden.org.
Even urban dwellers can plant a small garden. It is not too soon to start planning your garden for the spring. To learn more, contact your local agriculture cooperative extension office at www.csrees.usda.gov/ Extension.
Keep your garden “green” by composting kitchen scraps. This practice reduces waste and feeds your soil, which is the genesis of a healthy garden. If you’re not sure how to get started, check out www.howtocompost.org.
The “slow food movement” encourages the practice of slowing down when purchasing and eating food. Enjoy the pleasures of food; connect with where it was grown; and adopt a practice of making sustainable choices. Part of slowing down is taking time each week to plan your meals. This can help you eat more nutritious, balanced meals and cut down on waste. Check out the Slow Food USA website at www.slowfoodusa.org for more tips on savoring your meals.
Our dietary choices and purchasing decisions can have a powerful impact on the sustainability of our food system. Take one step to live a little lighter and greener this year—for your own health and the health of the planet.
Although there are benefits to buying organic produce, it can be a bit pricey. That’s why nutrition experts recommend going organic for the 12 vegetables and fruits that tend to have the highest levels of pesticides. Avoid conventional versions of these foods and you can lower your pesticide exposure by almost 90 percent, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Here’s a list of the “dirty dozen” that justify going organic:
- imported grapes
- sweet bell peppers
National Geographic’s The Green Guide, www.thegreenguide.com
Eat Well Guide: A Sustainable Table Project, www.eatwellguide.com
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, www.mbayaq.org
Shifting Baselines, www.shiftingbaselines.org
National Gardening Association, www.garden.org
Slow Food USA, www.slowfoodusa.org
Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD, is wellness coordinator for the Albuquerque Public School district and a part-time nutrition instructor at the University of New Mexico
Earth Policy Institute. 2006. Bottled water: Pouring resources down the drain [2007 update]. www.earth-policy.org/Updates/2006/Update51.htm; retrieved Oct. 27, 2007.
Environmental Working Group, www.foodnews.org; retrieved Aug. 26, 2007.
Food and Water Watch. 2007. Take back the tap. www.foodandwaterwatch.org; retrieved Aug. 25, 2007.
Jacobson, M. 2006. Six Arguments for a Greener Diet. Center for Science in the Public Interest: Washington, DC.
Mitchell, A.E., et al. 2007. Ten-year comparison of the influence of organic and conventional crop management practices on the content of flavonoids in tomatoes. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 55 (15), 6154-59.
Olson, E.D. 1999. Bottled water: Pure drink or pure hype? Natural Resources Defense Council. www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/bw/bwinx.asp; retrieved Aug. 25, 2007.
Pirog, R., & Benjamin, A. 2003. Checking the food odometer: Comparing food miles for local versus conventional produce sales to Iowa institutions. Ames, IA: Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
Pirog, R., & Benjamin, A. 2005. Calculating food miles for a multiple ingredient food product. Ames, IA: Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
Schardt, D. 2007. Organic food: Worth the price? Nutrition Action Health Letter, 34 (6).
Williamson, C.S. 2007. Is organic food better for our health? Nutrition Bulletin, 32 (2), 104-108.
Worm, B., et al. 2006. Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services. Science, 314 (5800), 787-90.
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