What We Eat Matters: 5 Food Choices That Can Lower Your Impact on the Environment

by Kyle Rabin

Published: 2/05/18, Last updated: 5/23/19

Despite the misguided and ill-informed environmental policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration, many Americans continue to have a strong commitment to the environment (and the health of our communities). One way people are making a difference is through their everyday food choices. Those choices (and voices) have already moved the needle — greater demand for more sustainable, transparent products has made a noticeable and positive impact on food production. Since plant and animal agriculture is inextricably connected with the natural world and the planet’s resources — soil, water, air, climate, land and biodiversity — our personal food choices can drive solutions and practices that transform our agricultural system into one that is far more sustainable.

When agriculture is sustainably managed using agroecology and regenerative farming practices, it can help protect watersheds, preserve and restore critical habitats, reduce carbon emissions (and prevent the worst impacts associated with climate change), and improve soil health and water and air quality. Sustainable food production treads more lightly with respect to energy and water resources and chemical inputs (pesticides, fertilizers and agrichemicals) than the methods used by the industrial system. The Union of Concerned Scientists describes this “conventional” system as “not built to last” given that it misuses and damages the resources on which it depends — with serious repercussions for the environment and people.

There are many ways we as individuals can lessen our environmental impact especially when it comes to our everyday food choices. While the number of options can be daunting the oft-repeated good advice is to tackle a few actions at a time. But which ones should you start with? Below, we’ll help you choose by giving you five of the most important actions to consider.

1. Eat lower on the food chain

Try eating lower on the food chain by adding more fruits, vegetables and grains to your diet and reducing your intake of beef, chicken and pork. This is one of the more effective strategies for reducing negative impacts on the planet’s climate, soil, air and water resources, as well as harmful impacts to biodiversity and habitat.

The higher on the food chain and/or the more processing required — e.g., meat produced through the industrial animal agriculture system — the more energy (predominantly fossil fuel-based) consumed, which generally means more global warming emissions and other pollutants that impact air quality. Overall, livestock production for meat and dairy accounts for approximately 15 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). That’s larger than the GHG contribution from the global transportation sector. NRDC estimates that if every American consumed just one-third less beef per year, it would reduce climate pollution equal to that created by 10 million cars every year.

Eating food from higher on the food chain also leads to greater pollution which can undermine the availability of water supplies for human use, and negatively impact the habitat along rivers and streams. In Iowa, for example, the number of impaired waterways has skyrocketed over the past several years, adversely impacting both critical habitats and drinking water supplies. Last month, a broad coalition of local, state and national groups called on Iowa lawmakers to halt construction of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) until the number of impaired waterways in the state is drastically reduced.

Industrial agriculture also has a devastating impact on our soil resources, undercutting its health and also its ability to store water both of which are critical to agriculture’s resiliency in the face of drought. In our interview with her, water expert Sandra Postel urges that our agricultural practices and techniques see soil as a reservoir that is integral to maintaining and improving soil health. This brings us back to the transformation in food production that individual choices can help us to achieve.

In addition to the benefits for water quality, eating lower on the food chain can lower your water footprint. Check out our Water Footprint Calculator to find out how much of your diet factors into your total water footprint.

2. Eat less and better meat

If you choose to eat meat, choose wisely: pick sustainably-produced — e.g., pasture raised, grassfed — over conventionally produced meat. In general, sustainably-produced meat and dairy is the “better” option from the standpoint of climate, air quality, water resources, soil health and biodiversity. It’s also much better from an animal welfare perspective.

The “less meat” part of the equation refers to eating smaller portions of meat and eating it less frequently. For example, you can make Meatless Monday part of your routine! For many, skipping meat for one full day each week translates to a 15 percent cut in meat consumption. If for the remainder of the week you are able to replace some meat with plant-based sources of protein — sustainably produced, when possible — you can further reduce the demand for conventionally-produced meat and the corresponding adverse impact to the environment and human health.

The number of plant-based product options is growing fast, and their rising popularity illustrates the growing trend in vegan and vegetarian food consumption. Notably, meat eaters are also showing an interest. According to Beyond Meat, an estimated 70 percent of Beyond Burger purchasers are flexitarians.

3. Don’t waste food

By planning out meals, using leftovers and only buying what you need, you can make big reductions in how much food goes to waste. It also pays to better understand sell-by dates and how they can lead to food waste.

While households don’t bare all of the blame, they are a big part of the food waste problem. According to ReFED, households collectively generate the largest percentage of food waste, followed by restaurants and other food service institutions. Rounding out the list are farms and supermarkets.

Wasting food is much bigger than the food that gets tossed or goes uneaten; it means wasting all the resources required to produce that food such as water, energy, soil and cropland. And wasted food is also a significant contributor to climate change, producing more GHG emissions than 37 million cars. Those emissions are associated with growing the food and, to a lesser extent, the food decomposing in landfills which releases methane, a potent heat-trapping gas.

To prevent food scraps from ending up in the landfill, compost it. This helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can be used to improve soil health all the while displacing the need for synthetic fertilizer. For more info about composting and other ideas to tackle the food waste problem, check out Five Easy Ways to Reduce Food Waste and Cooking With Less Waste, our series on reducing food waste in the kitchen.

4. Eat in season & Eat local

Purchasing foods in season from local farms can help to maintain farmland and open space in your community. A recent USDA study also found that direct-to-consumer producers were less likely to apply pesticides and herbicides to control weeds and insects than conventional producers. Consider joining a CSA and shopping at farmers’ market. And you’ll enjoy the health benefits of eating fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables. Moreover, local, seasonal produce just tastes better (and can be more cost effective).

Use our Seasonal Food Guide to find out when and where your favorite locally grown produce is at its peak and has maximum flavor; you’ll also find recipes and in depth information on local, seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs, legumes and nuts from our Real Food Right Now series.

Eating food grown locally can also benefit water resources by 1) helping to keep the water used to grow that food within your watershed which helps to cut down on “water exports” and 2) helping to protect water quality within the watershed (as long as the food is grown sustainably).

5. Be informed and speak up

In addition to influencing change through your food choices, you can also take action by getting involved on a local, regional and national level. Take some time to learn about the food system and how federal policies and practices are impacting agriculture and the environment.

Which brings us back to Trump. Check out this critical assessment of the Trump administration and the 115th Congress and the impact their agricultural policies and practices are having on the environment as well as on food safety, food security and food system workers.

You can also participate at the local government level. Going to town or city council meetings and getting involved in local elections is an effective way to speak up and speak out about local (and sometimes state and federal) food and agriculture issues.

Also, there are many amazing organizations working to improve our food system that you can follow. Here is a short list: Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Working GroupFood and Water Watch and The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

And be sure to check out our take action page for some examples of how you can make your voice heard.

We can all make change happen through our food choices and our voices! By focusing on these five action areas you can reduce your impact on the environment and help to forge a more sustainable food system. While it’s all too easy to become disheartened by the current administration’s policies, it’s important to keep in mind that you have the ability to make a significant impact when it comes to the food we eat.

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