The past hundred years has seen a drastic change in the way we grow, harvest, transport, and consume food all of which are affecting the health of our planet and ourselves. Learn more in this blog.
This week, I’m rejoicing that spring is finally here and so are longer, warmer days. Already my thoughts have turned to high summer and leisurely afternoons spent in my garden or meandering the farmer’s market. So, I thought it would be fitting to spend this blog talking about one of the easiest ways that we as individuals can make a difference in the health of our planet: our food choices.
Our ancestors were the original locavores. For thousands of years, we relied on a lifestyle that allowed us to eat only those foods we could easily hunt or gather. With the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, most humans turned to an agrarian lifestyle that relied on homesteading, farming, and animal husbandry. Even as little as a hundred years ago, before the advent of the industrial revolution and motorized transportation, few of us regularly enjoyed such luxuries as sugar.
However, the past hundred years has seen a drastic change in the way we grow, harvest, transport, and consume food. Following World War II, the creation of industrialized farming, convenience foods, and supermarkets began to cater to a workforce that had left the fields and homesteads in search of the security and comfort of the office.
Today, we are faced with the effects of this shift in lifestyle. One of the primary impacts is the epidemic rise in obesity. For the first time in a hundred years, the current generation of children is projected to have a lower life expectancy than its parents. Healthcare costs are an enormous factor in our national debt and are driven in no small part by lifestyle-related diseases. And at the same time that we in the United States are dealing with a fat crisis, the poorest countries in the world are facing massive poverty and starvation.
Another victim of our food system is the environment. Food production consumes a significant amount of natural resources in the form of arable land, petrochemicals, and potable water. The process also produces massive amounts of waste in the form of disposable containers and by-products, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, chemical pollution, and more.
Yet another impact is on food safety. The demand for cheap food leads producers to cut corners by using chemicals and other fillers that have a potentially hazardous impact on our health. Massive production in factory farms can lead to contamination of foods. Food ingredients are often obtained from overseas facilities that have little to no regulation. The process suffers from a lack of human oversight.
Luckily for us, this is one social and environmental situation in which we as individual consumers can wield significant power. By making smarter food choices, we can have a substantial impact on our own health, the health of others, and the health of the planet.
Here are my top three suggestions for making more responsible food choices:
In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet, the first book of its kind to critique agro-business and carbon-based farming. Although Lappé’s work is now more than 30 years old, her advice continues to be relevant. Recent popular documentaries like Food Inc., Ingredients, Food Matters, King Corn, Forks Over Knives, Supersize Me, and Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead have all examined the impacts of our national food system while simultaneously recommending that one solution is a plant-based diet.
A growing body of evidence points to a plant-based diet as better for you and the planet. Just last week, the LA Times published an article suggesting that consumption of red meat in any quantity is linked to premature death. Not ready to become a vegan just yet? Replacing even one of your weekly meals with a vegetarian meal is a way to begin. Try joining the Meatless Monday brigade and start trading out meat with plants just one day a week.
Are organic foods really better? The short answer is yes. Organic foods, on average, tend to contain higher nutrient profiles than their commercially raised cousins. They also don’t contain many of the chemical additives, hormones, and pesticides present in commercially raised foods. These chemicals have been found to have a negative effect on human health, wildlife, and soil.
Organic farming also produces less waste, uses less petroleum based agro-chemicals, and causes less pollution from sprayed pesticides and fertilizers. Workers on organic farms experience fewer side effects from exposure to chemicals. Supporting organic farms also puts resources back in the hands of small business owners and helps to save heirloom crop varieties and preserve biodiversity.
Organic foods are more expensive, but the cost of these foods is a more realistic cost of the true production price of food. Commercially raised crops and animals are heavily subsidized by the US government, which is part of what helps to keep commercial food prices low. Buying organic can help you appreciate the true cost, and value, of your food.
If you can’t afford to purchase all organic foods, start with replacing the dirtiest ones that you eat, known collectively as “The Dirty Dozen”.
In the middle of a cold, dark winter, who hasn’t wanted to brighten up their table and their pallet with strawberries, peppers, asparagus, melon, and grapes? The problem is that, out-of-season, these foods must be imported and the farther a food has to come to our table, the more it impacts the environment. (Plus, foods eaten out of season just don’t taste as good; they must be picked and shipped before they are ripe and at the peak of flavor).
It’s not just off-season produce that is shipped to us. Coffee, cocoa/chocolate, cane sugar, some varieties of nuts, and spices, along with some meats, grains, and perennial produce favorites like pineapples, mangos, and bananas aren’t produced locally either. Concerns with how these products are grown and harvested, including how workers who farm these products are treated and compensated, make them products that we may choose to avoid.
Large commercial farming operations in North America also contribute to GHG emissions, since food must be harvested, shipped, and in some cases, processed. These large farm operations contribute to soil depletion, monoculture foods, and the prevalence of GMOs.
Eating locally and seasonally are simple ways to reduce your dependence on carbon fuels while simultaneously supporting local farmers and local economies and enjoying better tasting foods.
Not sure you’re ready to commit to becoming a locavore like Barbara Kingsolver’s family did in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Start with committing to buy foods raised in the continental US. Look for foods at your local grocer that are produced in your state or region. Patronize farmer’s markets and restaurants that use locally grown foods. If you can, grow a garden, or join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. If you can’t live without coffee and chocolate, make sure that the products you’re buying are certified Fair Trade.
By adopting a few simple food practices and making your diet and lifestyle more sustainable, you can directly improve your personal health and the health of the planet and her other inhabitants.