In our global economy, eating can be complicated. Or, looked at from another angle, eating has never been easier.

At least in the US, the simplicity of going to a grocery store far removed from the production process of food tends to conceal problems.

The ethical consequences of an item are hard to grasp if they aren’t readily visible—and branded packaging is all about being attractive.


I want my food to be nutritious, delicious and also environmentally judicious (not suspicious or pernicious. Ok, enough rhyming for one day).

That means I scan ingredient labels when shopping and put back anything that sets off my radar (laundry-list labels, specific preservatives, artificial flavoring, etc.).

I Google claims of “sustainably raised” or “no this/that chemical” to see if they’re genuine. I try to buy from brands with smaller operations, because they tend to cut less ethical corners.

But I’m not perfect. I make bad food choices in the spur of the moment all the time. I eat more animal products than I should. Although I try not to, I definitely consume more than my allotted ecological footprint. Living in a Western nation almost mandates exceeding sensible eco-footprints.

So I always need a refresher, a reminder, to prod me in the right direction, to help me squeeze into that footprint.  

Brief refresher course in sustainable eating:

The Golden Rule: look for alternatives to meat

Meat consumption correlates pretty directly with income. The more money you have, the more money you spend on meat. Let’s call this the Baconization of Development. Suddenly, bacon insinuates itself into every dish or wraps itself around every vegetable—I’m looking at you brussels sprouts!

The average American eats 10 to 12 times more meat than their counterparts in Mozambique or Bangladesh.

That’s important to keep in mind. As countries become more prosperous, their diets become meat-centric, tilting the entire food production landscape because meat is the most resource-intensive type of food in the world.

Not so fast, you might say:Almonds are the real enemies. Cut down those almond trees before you interfere with my hamburger.  

Image: Flickr: Steve Corey

It’s true that, in a very limited sense, farmers use more water to grow a pound of almonds than they do to grow a pound of beef (approximately 1,929 vs. 1,857).

But that’s a reductive way to look at it. That’s like saying riding a bike is more resource-intensive than driving a car because you feel more tired afterward. Almonds growing on a tree suck up more water per pound than cows in a field do, but that’s not the whole story. It’s just a sliver.

Big Suckers: The almond vs. hamburger debate

Cows (through no fault of their own) take up vastly more agricultural land than almonds do, reducing the overall usefulness of land. The hegemony of meat in the US compels farmers to utilize their land for activities that supplement the meat industry: growing corn, soybeans, etc., that are then fed to animals.

Cows, in particular, are fed crops that are even more water-intensive than almonds: alfalfa.

In the US, land dedicated to raising or feeding cows accounts for 88 percent of available agricultural land.

And, as I said, meat production is on the rise in the developing world, which will strain natural resources beyond capacity.

Industrial livestock operations pollute the ground, waterways and the air, while almonds do not. In fact, livestock cause more air pollution than transportation does.

Cows release massive amounts of methane, the most destructive greenhouse gas, which traps 21 times more heat from the sun than carbon.

Image: Flickr: Sunny Ripert

Throughout the world, livestock operations can lead to deforestation as producers expand to meet demand.

Finally, more energy is used to transport, store and cook beef than almonds.

Although almonds are petite, they are more calorically dense than beef. Almonds have around 2,600 calories per pound, compared to beef’s 1,000-1,500.

They also pack more nutrients than beef: better fats, more vitamins and minerals.

Someone who eats almonds will get fuller faster than someone eating beef.

As you can see, beef has a larger resource footprint than almonds when looked at holistically.

That doesn’t mean almonds have to be your go-to for every meal or that they are the wisest use of land (but they shouldn’t be avoided, either). Vegetables require minimal water to grow and should be a cornerstone of every diet.

Almost everyone loves a hamburger or grilled chicken, but meat alternatives have improved a lot since their inception and are pretty tasty nowadays.

Know your oil

Olive (the biggest water hog of them all) and canola are the most common oils, but cooking and flavoring oil is made from coconuts, soybeans, corn and many other foods.   

Lurking within this field is an oil that has become spectacularly destructive: palm oil.

It’s not that palm oil is any worse for you nutritionally than other oils—it’s the industry that has sprouted up around palm oil that is bad.

Image: Flickr: Rainforest Action Network

Palm oil cultivation is largely unregulated and leads to vast deforestation, environmental degradation, harm to animals and workers’ rights abuses.

So check the ingredient label next time you buy cookies or chips. There’s a good chance palm oil will be listed. If it is, maybe buy something else until you know that cultivation is better managed.

Head to head

Many foods are, to some extent, interchangeable (at least to a computer). So why not base some decisions on water intensity?

Tea vs. coffee: You may have to get your early morning caffeine jolt from leaves instead of beans. Tea requires nearly 10 times less water per pound than coffee.

Rice vs. pasta: Put down those chopsticks and pick up a fork. Pasta edges out rice at 222 gallons to 237, saving the world 15 gallons for something else—a hot shower anyone?

Oats vs. potatoes: At 290 gallons per pound, oats use 9 times more water than potatoes.

Broccoli vs. Asparagus: That leafy head on broccoli is more energy-efficient than you might think. 34 gallons of water are used to produce a pound of broccoli, compared to 258 for asparagus.

It’s easy to slip into an automatic routine of shopping for and cooking food, which can lead you astray from sustainability.

But people don’t have to live their lives that way. Asking a few simple questions about, or just Googling, the food you are about to buy can reduce your eco-footprint.

If everyone makes these decisions then food production systems can be reformed to sensibly feed the planet and a one-size-fits-all eco-footprint can start to seem a little more feasible.  

This is important for maintaining food security for all. If the world adopts sustainable practices it can produce more food and thus feed more people.

Get world leaders behind this idea by signing the petition to support increasing food security in TAKE ACTION NOW.


Defeat Poverty

Beef’s role in your beefy eco-footprint

By Joe McCarthy