Five food choices for a healthy planet

April 16, 2006

Five simple food choices to help the earth.

1. Eat low on the food chain

ecological footprintMoving toward a vegetarian diet is one of the most powerful personal choices you can make for a healthier environment. Your ecological footprint (the amount of non-wild land required to sustain you) is greatly affected by the quantity of meat in your diet. Meat-eaters need far more land than vegetarians because they eat domesticated animals that have ecological footprints themselves. On a larger scale it leads to the Earth becoming increasingly out of balance. Populations of non-wild animals have been exploding while wilderness areas shrink and the wildlife they contain become ever more endangered.

Based on figures from Statistics Canada, our farm animal population averages around 132 million. Taking individual weights into account, food animals outweigh people by a factor of four to one! All these animals need food, water and transportation, and many require shelter and waste removal. Most of our farmland is dedicated to feeding them.

By curtailing our meat consumption we could free up millions of acres of agricultural land that could be returned to forest and wild prairie. Using less farmland also means less soil erosion, less irrigation water, less pesticides, and less fossil fuels for farm machinery and fertilizer production.

Fortunately there are many delicious vegetarian options available at natural food stores, supermarkets and restaurants.

See Meat production’s environmental toll

2. Avoid fish

From an environmental perspective, fish is not a good alternative to meat.

Wild fish stocks are in serious decline. Humans have become increasing effective at tracking down schools of fish using sophisticated sonar and satellite technologies. Capture methods include drag nets that rake the ocean floor, longlining – using miles of baited hooks, and the dynamiting coral reefs to scare fish into nets.

turtleNets reel in a great number of non-targeted species including seabirds, turtles, seals and dolphins. Marine mammals frequently get tangled in fishing gear — a problem that kills 1,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises around the world every day. Shrimp boats that drag the bottom are the most wasteful, scooping up 10 kilograms of other marine life for every one kilogram of shrimp.

A recent global study, published in the international journal Nature in May 2003, concludes that 90 percent of all large fishes have disappeared from the world’s oceans in the past half century.

The high price of seafood reflects the enormous energy and transportation costs that go in to catching what is otherwise a free resource. Fleets of trawlers need to be built, maintained and fuelled. Ocean fish are generally transported refrigerated or frozen over great distances before ending up in our local supermarkets.

Aquaculture (farmed fish) has been growing in popularity, making up for the decline in wild fish stocks. But as is the case for intensive livestock operations, fish farms require large amounts of feed and chemicals. Disease and pollution often spill out from the submerged floating cages located along shorelines. Disease pathogens spread easily among the high densities of fish, and concentrated fecal wastes and drugs can contaminate adjacent waters. Fish that escape from the cages can spread disease and inbreeding to wild stocks.

See Fish & seafood – the environmental costs

3. Eat locally grown

Buying locally grown food supports nearby farmers, and greatly reduces the energy and resources necessary to transport and store foods. Typically, produce from Mexico or California is shipped in refrigerated trucks. When you buy long-distance food part of the price you pay is for fuel and the truck. You are also supporting the need for wide highways that carve their way through wilderness areas, creating barriers and hazards for wildlife. Fresh food from other continents is typically flown in by airplanes. Planes require staggering amounts of fuel to lift produce and meat into the air and across oceans.

A 2002 Worldwatch report says that a typical meal made with ingredients from a supermarket takes four to 17 times more petroleum consumption in transport than the same meal made from local ingredients.

Often, local food is the freshest and cheapest produce available in the store. The warm months in northern climates are the best time to eat freshly harvested fruit and vegetables. Even in the winter, you can find locally grown potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips, squash, apples, and more. gardenFarmers markets are great places to check out. You can preserve seasonal fruits by canning, freezing or dehydrating.

Gardening is the ultimate way to obtain local foods. Start one in your backyard, front yard, community garden, planter box, or even in a sprouting jar. Collecting wild edibles is another option.

See Eating local and organic

4. Buy organic

By voting with your food dollars you can support organic methods while at the same time saying no to chemical agriculture. Modern conventional farming relies on soil fumigants, herbicides, systemic insecticides, pesticides, fertilizers, and fungicides.

Organic food is grown without any chemical agents. The seed cannot be genetically modified, and the use of sewage sludge as a fertilizer is not permitted. Farmers tend to use traditional methods that are more sustainable and healthy for the soil, plants and farm workers, and ultimately for the Earth.

Organic food items are usually more expensive due to low distribution and extra labour requirements, but prices will continue to come down as more people support it.

Organic farmers markets and the larger natural food stores offer the best selection of vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, and other foods. Many supermarkets such as Safeway and Loblaws now offer organic produce and their own lines of packaged products. But typical for grocery stores, most of the fruits and vegetables are shipped in from afar, and many of the processed items are overly sweet, refined, and packaged.

See Eating local and organic.

5. Minimize wastage

Choose foods that result in less packaging, energy, and landfill waste.

Packaging – Buy foods that require little or no packaging, such as whole fruits, vegetables, and bulk dry goods. Also look for items with reduced packaging such as breakfast cereal that comes in a bag instead of a box and inner liner. Natural food stores are good places to shop. For foods packaged in plastic, check that the container is recyclable. When shopping or picking up dinner, remember to bring your own bags and containers. Even when dining out, it is handy to have a container along for leftovers.

Avoiding landfill waste – A 2004 study, from the University of Arizona, found that half of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten. The average family of four throws out $600 worth of good food every year.
There is a huge opportunity to reduce this wastage by adjusting shopping, storage and eating habits. For example, eating leftovers is a great way to reduce the amount of garbage that ends up being trucked to landfill sites. Reheating and adding some fresh ingredients can jazz up yesterday’s meal.
You can feed your leftovers to the worms. Composting is a great way to return your peels, trimming and spoiled food back to the Earth.

Save energy – Choose foods that don’t need a lot of refrigerating and freezing. Whole foods are excellent choices. Warm weather is a good time for eating meals that require less cooking. In winter, cooking your food will contribute to heating your home. If you have a frozen meal to reheat, consider first letting it thaw out in the refrigerator. Also let hot cooked foods cool off completely before refrigerating. A quick cooling tip is to place a warm pot of food into the sink and surround with cold water. Water draws heat out heat much faster than air.

See Minimizing food wastage.