The way you choose to eat is a personal decision you make based on your health, budget, and taste preferences, but the diet you follow can also have a significant impact on the planet as a whole. In fact, a recent comprehensive study proposed the top-twenty most impactful things we could do today to reverse global warming, and eating a plant-rich diet was fourth on the list! Reducing food waste was third!
While you may strive to make choices that are environmentally friendly, it can also seem like a daunting (and expensive) task at times. But there are simple and small changes you can make to adopt a more sustainable diet that can have a lasting positive impact on the planet.
A sustainable diet, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, is nutritionally adequate, culturally acceptable, economically fair, and helps optimize local and global resources.
Here are 3 key things to consider when making your diet more sustainable:
1. Food Production
The level of greenhouse-gas emissions from food production is one of the most important factors to look at when it comes to your diet’s impact on the environment. The most costly types of food to produce, in terms of energy and resource requirements, are animal products. Animal foods, including meat, dairy, fish and eggs, are responsible for 83% of the greenhouse-gas emissions caused by food production.
On the other hand, vegan diets eliminate all animal products, and therefore inherently reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. However, before adopting a vegan lifestyle, it is important to understand that animals provide protein, fat, and nutrients, and getting those nutrients without meat may require a different approach to eating than a carnivore may be used to. For those interested in going vegetarian or vegan, a gradual transition is the best way to go.
Reducing your consumption of animal products is a good step towards sustainability, but everyone completely eliminating these products from their life is not necessarily realistic. There are options for raising livestock more sustainably. The problem is that most livestock producers are not currently incentivized to institute sustainable practices. So until livestock production becomes less polluting, eating less meat, even if it’s only one meatless meal per week, is better than doing nothing.
It’s also better for your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, reducing meat consumption has a “protective effect” against heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Reducing the number of times you eat meat (especially red meat) and dairy per week can improve your health and make a big difference in how your diet affects the environment.
2. Quantity of Consumption
Another major impact on sustainability is related to food quantity, or how much we consume. With rates of obesity rising worldwide, it is clear that many of us are simply eating more food than we really need. In addition, food waste is a serious problem for our environment. In fact, 30 to 40 percent of food that is produced is wasted each year, according to the USDA. This is food that mostly ends up in landfills, contributing to further greenhouse-gas emissions.
Reducing food waste is an important part of a sustainable diet. Taking care to buy only what you need, eat most of what you buy, and dispose of food in environmentally friendly ways, i.e. composting, can help reduce waste and pollution. Making easy changes like planning your meals each week, setting up a compost bin, or bringing leftovers to work can all make a big difference over time.
3. Food Sourcing
Getting your food from local sources is another important factor in sustainable eating. What better way to be sure about the quality of your food, than to get it from your very own garden? If you don’t have a garden, many communities offer farmer’s markets or community farm shares that can make choosing locally sourced foods easier.
Buying local food supports your local economy and reduces the carbon footprint of your diet. Also be sure to check the labels at the grocery store. When you have the choice, go for produce that is in season and that was grown in your region, or at least within North America.
Evaluating a diet for sustainability is a complex, multi-faceted process, which doesn't just relate to the environmental impact of food. It also impacts your health, the economy, and the role food plays in our daily lives. The good news is that small changes in our everyday eating habits can go a long way in our health and the health of the planet.