Food and climate change are linked in complicated ways. The global food industry requires an enormous amount of energy to cultivate, transport, store, prepare, and serve foods. This leads to lots of greenhouse gases, and, in the process, soils, rivers, oceans, forests, and more, are often degraded and destroyed.
Climate change, meanwhile, creates its own vicious cycles of activity — environmentally vulnerable countries are often the most food insecure. So as climate change increases, their agricultural potential often declines. Yet these countries need food and, subsequently, their reliance on the complicated logistics of food aid increases. Improving their adaptability and resilience is a critical part of any global food discussion.
But not all foods are created (transported, stored, prepared, and served) equally. Some foods have a really big impact on the environment and others don’t. A lot of factors influence ecological impact, and, if looked at holistically, it’s possible to develop a diet that is more eco-friendly.
Meat has the biggest environmental impact out of all food types, especially beef. But, like all foods, the full picture is complicated. There are a few overlooked environmental benefits to raising livestock when done in a limited way. Livestock's waste can be used as fertilizer that can help grow crops (reducing the need for chemical fertilizer). Most livestock feed is made up of waste products like spent grain, so raising livestock can create extra calories for humans to consume that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
But these benefits come with a major caveat: moderation. Eating meat on a daily basis can never be sustainable.
Almost all foods come with caveats of some kind, but there are clear choices that will make your diet more eco-friendly.
Here are some of the best foods to add to your diet.
Lentils are humble superfoods. They live in the legume family (seeds of plants) and are great sources of fiber, protein, and various nutrients.
They have a very low carbon footprint — 43 times less than beef, for example — and require little water to grow. They also clean and fortify soil to make it easier to grow other crops.
And they’re extremely cheap.
2016 is the UN Year of the Pulses (legumes are pulses) — so head to their page to find some delicious recipes. Lentils are great in soups and are amazing on their own if you add some seasoning like curry.
Beans are also part of the legume family and they come in many colors and sizes — red kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, and more.
Beans have a remarkably low carbon and water footprint and are filled with fiber, protein, and nutrients.
They go great in soups or cold salads, but they excel when paired with rice. Rice and beans may be the best base for a meal — tasty, sustainable, nutritious.
Figs are actually flowers and they’re some of the most resilient plants on Earth. There are more than 750 figs across the planet and many of them act as lynchpins in ecosystems — their year-round growing habits provide a critical source of food for countless animals.
They’re also super nutritious and can be eaten in all sorts of ways.
Many mussels are harvested on long collector ropes suspended in oceans. While growing along the ropes, they eat food that naturally occurs in the water. In the process, they filter and clean the water and extract carbon to make their shells. Cumulatively, they have little environmental impact.
Mussels are also an excellent source of animal protein — and they’re delicious!
Local, Seasonal Fish
The biggest problem facing the world’s fish supplies is not climate change. It’s overfishing. While overfishing is a problem all throughout the world, it’s most pressing near countries with weak regulation. Many fish, also, reproduce over long periods. The relentless pace of modern fishing never gives them a chance to recover their populations and so each year their numbers plummet closer and closer to dangerous levels.
But sustainable fishing is eminently possible — and is being done around the world.
If you want to support healthy fisheries that can maintain harmony in the oceans, then buy from sellers that can clearly describe a fish’s origins. And if possible, buy fish right from the people who caught it, either at farmer's markets or fish markets. And be sure to buy fish when they are in season.
Local, Organic Vegetables and Fruits
The “organic” movement sometimes comes under fire for, paradoxically, increasing environmental impact — sadly, as animals get more space to move around, their environmental impact increases (of course, this just means you should eat less meat). And crops that are grown far from their destination, no matter how sustainably grown, accumulate a larger eco-footprint when they travel.
For vegetables and fruits, though, organic almost always means environmentally beneficial. The more organic a farmer is able to go, the better. Organic crops help to maintain healthy soil and water sources and clean the air. Because they use less chemicals to grow, they’re also better for you.
However, this means that you should be eating fruits and vegetables when they’re in season so that you’re not supporting carbon-intensive supply chains.
If you’re able to join a community garden, that’s your best option.
Some of the most eco-friendly fruits and vegetables include broccoli, onions, potatoes, oranges, and apples.
Fair Trade Teas and Coffees
Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, and tea is the most widely consumed beverage after water.
Oftentimes, however, coffee and tea are grown in unsustainable and unethical ways. Pesticide use and deforestation are rampant, coffee and tea plantation workers are exploited, and complex supply chains burn up lots of oil. Despite the bleak context, many brands are working to improve the conditions.
Here’s a guide to finding fair and eco-friendly coffee and tea.
It's possible for humanity to create food in a way that maintains the integrity of the environment. It's not easy, but, over time, the indiviual choices of consumers can help to reshift global priorities.