Here's What To Eat (And What Not To) To Save The Environment
As consumers become increasingly educated on various agricultural practices and their impacts on the environment, including deforestation, biodiversity loss, the acceleration of climate change1, and the depletion of limited natural resources, we're realizing that not all food is created equal from a sustainability standpoint.
Today, we're comparing the environmental footprints of some of the most eco-friendly foods to some of the worst offenders to help you to make more sustainable choices the next time you're at the grocery store.
5 of the most sustainable foods:
A versatile and budget-friendly ingredient, lentils rank high as one of the best "climate-friendly proteins" with very low greenhouse gas emissions. Production emissions and "post-farming emissions" (inclusive of processing, transport, and cooking) of lentils are only 0.9 kg of CO2 equivalent for each kg consumed, 40 times less compared to other protein sources, such as lamb.
Try it out with this one-pot Hearty and Healing Lentil Stew.
Following closely behind lentils, tomatoes (when sourced locally) are another environmentally friendly food with combined emissions amounting to only 1.1 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg consumed. This vine is fairly easy to grow, so plant some in your backyard and enjoy the true meaning of local produce.
Try it out with these Chickpea Pancakes With Roasted Tomatoes.
With 13 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef, tofu is a protein-packed food that requires less water than many sources of animal protein. Tofu produces the carbon emission equivalent of less than 1 mile driven per 4 ounces consumed. Furthermore, buying organic ensures the use of non-GMO crops and avoids the use of synthetic chemicals, which can be damaging to the environment.
Try it out with this better-than-takeout Tofu Stir-Fry.
Green peas act as natural nitrogen fixers, converting the compound into a usable form for organisms. Because of this, peas often do not require synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and other possible additives, decreasing the amount of harmful resources needed while keeping vital nutrients needed to grow the plant.
Try it out with this bright green Spinach & Pea Soup.
When it comes to vegetables and fruits, buying produce that uses the least amount of fertilizers and pesticides is beneficial, as they account for about one-third of greenhouse gases emitted in the United States. Broccoli, along with other cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and Brussels sprouts, contains natural pesticides that protect from pests and other potentially harmful organisms. Broccoli also produces the carbon emission equivalent of less than 1 mile driven per 4 ounces consumed.
Try it out with this Broccoli and Quinoa Salad.
7 of the worst foods for the environment:
Perhaps surprising to some, lamb has 50% more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than beef. According to the Environmental Working Group, although methane gas emissions and amount of feed required for lamb are comparable to that of beef, lamb provides less edible meat, which makes it the worst animal protein for the environment.
As noted above, beef takes a close second to lamb as one of the worst foods for the environment. Generating 27 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents for each kilogram eaten, it takes roughly 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. Deforestation and high quantities of feed required to raise cattle are also factors that contribute to the negative environmental impacts of beef.
Even though pork may not have as large of an environmental impact as its red meat counterpart, that doesn't mean the impact that it isn't significant. Eating just a 4-ounce serving of pork, roughly about a size of a deck of cards, can be equivalent to the same carbon footprint of driving your car for 3 miles. Considering many people eat red meat several times a week, combining this with the carbon footprint equivalent of beef and lamb being greater than 6.5 miles driven by car, the impact adds up very quickly.
Ever wonder how much milk it takes to produce all that cheese at the grocery store? Answer: a lot. Of course this depends on the type of cheese; however, the environmental impact of raising and feeding the livestock that provide the milk is significant nonetheless. Cheese produces 13.5 kb (~29.8 lbs.) of carbon dioxide equivalents for each kilogram eaten, roughly 13 times than that of foods such as lentils and tomatoes. As noted by the Environmental Working Group, if a family of four were to leave out meat and cheese just one day a week for a year, it would be the equivalent of saving five weeks of driving or reducing the individual daily shower time by three minutes!
Conventionally Farmed Salmon
Unfortunately, the impacts of many commercial fish products do not prove to be any kinder for the environment either. Farmed salmon typically requires lots of feed to grow, and they are transported by plane or shipped to various destinations, further adding to total emission levels by as much as 50%.
Although chicken may not have as large of a carbon footprint, chicken processing does require more energy and water than other meats. Within the realm of conventional egg production, the majority of the total cage layer houses in the United States is "high-rise," where poultry are arranged in layered, stacked cages. This style of house leads to poor air quality and higher emissions of ammonia, which has several harmful effects, including negative impacts on aquatic species and crops. Compared to plant-based protein sources such as lentils, chickens emit more than six times the carbon dioxide equivalents per kg.
Eggs aren't off the hook either. It takes roughly 477 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of eggs. Assuming that the average "full" bathtub takes 36 gallons, that would be the equivalent taking about 15 baths! Combining this with the estimated 896 gallons of water needed to produce 1 pound of cheese, this shows you how a simple cheese omelet may be hurting the environment much more than you realized.
From an environmental standpoint, the trend is clear: Eating fewer animal products and more plant-based foods is beneficial for the planet. Animal products generally use larger amounts of resources and energy than various other plant-based foods, plus produce higher carbon emissions. The good news is that when it comes to eating less meat and dairy and fewer eggs, it's not all-or-nothing. Small changes in your diet will make a big impact. For example, consider experimenting with Meatless Mondays, eating meat only on the weekends, or cooking or ordering meals with smaller meat portions; in other words, see what works best for you.
And remember, no matter the degree of reduction or your strategy and motivation for cutting back on animal products, eating with an environmentally conscious mind is a simple yet powerful step toward being able to support a healthy planet. Each and every plant-based meal is one worth celebrating.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.