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Whether biting into a piece of pizza or a chowing down on a kale salad, most of us (at least momentarily) consider the impact that food will have on our bodies. But what about the impact that food has on the planet?
How is our environmental impact measured?
Governments worldwide are slowly admitting that climate change exists, and that changes need to be made quickly.
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are largely responsible for the overall warming of the earth’s temperature.
They include methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons, and the most detrimental, carbon dioxide (CO2). The most accurate measurement of GHGs is CO2e — this is the equivalent amount of CO2 that does the same damage as all the GHG’s (including CO2) combined.
Whether building a concrete jungle or converting old-growth forest to farmland, humans have a huge impact on earth’s biosystems.
We already know we should recycle and turn off the lights when we leave a room, but the food we eat actually has a far bigger impact on our overall carbon footprint.
There are four widely consumed foods that are particularly detrimental to the planet.
Palm oil is used in the majority of packaged and snack foods in the US, as well as many products you wouldn’t expect —- soup, bread, soy milk and sandwich meat, soap, lipstick and biodiesel. If you’re a consumer, you’ve probably bought palm oil in the last week.
While it’s one of the most popular vegetable oils in the world, it’s also the worst for the earth. Millions of acres of carbon-rich peatlands and tropical rainforest are destroyed each year to make room for plantations, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia. This has a huge influence on global climate change, releasing enormous amounts of GHGs.
The main victims of this deforestation? Endangered orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and pygmy elephants. (All the cute ones.)
With 30% of the world’s vegetable oil relying on deforestation, human rights abuses, corrupt governments and animal endangerment, it’s easy to see why palm oil is an ingredient best avoided.
What can you do?
The simplest way to avoid palm oil is to stop buying from Starbucks and Pepsico. These two companies are the largest purchasers of unregulated (or ‘conflict’) palm oil in the US, and refuse to use ethical sources or change ingredients.
Secondly, read ALL the labels on your packaged foods. The Rainforest Action Network has rated major snack manufacturers by their contribution to habitat destruction and known human rights violations. If you really want to commit to deforestation-free living, have a look at the Don’t Palm Us Off campaign, and take the Palm Oil Challenge. It supports participants with product lists, recipes and more information.
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The US imports over $18 billion of fruit and vegetables every year. Unregulated farming and yield-focussed production rely heavily on pesticides and fertilizers, as well as exploited workers.
Pineapples are one of the worst offenders. Imported from plantation empires in Costa Rica, the pesticides used sterilize the soil and destroy biodiversity.
Fernando Ramirez, leading agronomist at Costa Rica’s National University Toxic Substances Institute, explains: “Some of the plantations have used paraquat, for example, to clear the soil at very, very high doses, 10 to 15 times the normal dose on other crops; it’s banned in Europe. They use lots of herbicides because the EU (European Union) will not allow even one weed in a container of imports. This is absolute monoculture, and that and the climate provide the perfect conditions for pests and diseases. They use organophosphates, organochlorines, hormone disruptors, chemicals that are known to cause cancer, chemicals that are reproductive toxins [cause birth defects]… Many are highly toxic, some are persistent pollutants.”
These farming practices are widespread in Central America. Half of all tomatoes consumed in the USA are imported from Mexico, and bananas, usually imported from Guatemala and the Caribbean, represent 2% of the total turnover of North American grocers. China, one of the least regulated countries in the world, provides 10% of the USA’s produce.
What can you do?
Shop local. One of the simplest ways to minimize your environmental impact is to eat locally grown, in-season fruits and vegetables. This is not only good for your local economy and small-batch farms, it’s great for you too!
American farms must adhere to strict standards for labor and chemical use, and by minimizing transit time and storage you’re getting fresher produce without the preservative chemicals needed for international shipping.
BEEF & LAMB
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In 2011, the research organization Environmental Working Group and the environmental firm CleanMetric put together a report called ‘Meat Eater’s Guide To Climate Change And Health’. It measures CO2e from animal’s food production, farming, importation (50% of lamb is imported), processing, and gases produced by the animal itself — yep, cows and sheep fart. A lot.
The report shows that lamb has the highest impact, emitting 39.3kg CO2e/kg of meat, or 3.3kg CO2e/serve. This means that for every lamb chop, you could be driving your car fifteen miles!
In addition to CO2e emissions, the meat industry is responsible for affecting our health and polluting the environment. In order to increase yield, animals are commonly injected with or fed growth hormones, which can cause breast cancer. They’re banned in the EU, but allowed in the US. These chemicals enter the environment, where they contaminate water and compromise the growth and reproduction of fish.
What can you do?
Americans eat more meat than any other country except Luxembourg — 270.7lbs/yr, or 4 servings (12 oz) per day. This is twice as much as what’s recommended by the American Heart Association. You can easily lower your environmental impact by reducing your meat intake and/or sourcing your meat from smaller, local farms that don’t use growth hormones.
There’s one important word here — biodiversity. Wild-caught fish isn’t caught with lines — it’s trawled, reaping all species, not just the desirable targets. These might be thrown back, if they survive the nets, but are usually treated as waste, turned into cat food or fish farm pellets.
Trawling also ruins the vegetation on the ocean floor — an area far greater than that of rainforest destruction — thus altering the food chain from the bottom up.
We’ve finally realized that the sea isn’t unendingly rich, but rather a sensitive ecosystem, easily influenced by humans. Recovery is possible — with time, expense, replanting of coral and marine vegetation, and aggressive fishing bans — but it’s becoming harder and harder.
Here’s a paradox — we’re overfishing the oceans, so farming fish seems like a great idea, right?
Unfortunately, instead of their natural foods, farmed fish are fed an antibiotic-, soy- and corn-rich diet, leading to lower levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than their wild brothers. They’re usually raised in ringed pens offshore, away from their natural environment, and wreak havoc on the local fish population if they escape. Young deep sea fish such as blue-fin tuna are also caught offshore, and then fattened in farmed pens. Commonly, farmed fish are fed with the less desirable species caught by trawler nets — often including threatened species of octopus and shellfish.
What can you do?
Is it possible to eat fish responsibly? Yes, as long as you make sure it’s from a sustainable source and harvested in a non-destructive way. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute’s Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood, and eat locally caught or raised products.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Digesting this kind of information can be pretty overwhelming (and depressing). Don’t despair; as long as you’re eating real food, you’re way ahead of the game.
June 5th is World Environment Day — a yearly reminder to commit to living responsibly and mindfully. (Like Earth Day, part II.) Use it as an excuse to choose one of these foods and reduce it by half.
And, as always…
Read your labels. Eat more plants (and less meat). And shop local.