Thanksgiving is a traditional holiday that centres around feasting and being thankful for what we have – especially the cornucopia of the fall harvest. We have images of farmers harvesting fields of wheat and corn, pulling up potatoes, nourishing gigantic pumpkins, and picking apples from trees. All in all the table of plenty is looking pretty good, BUT how much longer can this go on for?
As our population increases beyond our current 7 billion or so inhabitants and our climate continues to change, will we have much to feast on and be thankful for in the future? What can you do to make your diet more sustainable and ensure future generations will have a Thanksgiving to celebrate?
Earlier this week a team of scientists claimed that the tipping point in climate change will occur in 2047. It won’t be an overnight change but as humans put more and more stress on our climate, including marine and terrestrial ecosystems, we are not only going to affect air quality, oceanic levels, polar ice caps, and the flora and fauna BUT also our own food supply.
Indeed, food production in and of itself has a significant impact on the environment and is estimated to account for 19-31% of total greenhouse gas emissions (1).
What can we do as individuals to maintain a healthy diet yet minimize the environmental impact?
Meat and dairy products produce the most greenhouse gases (2). Replacing red meat with other foods reduces greenhouse gas emissions AND result in a healthier diet (3). A study in New Zealand looked at cost, nutritional quality, and greenhouse gas emissions to determine the optimal diet and report that basic foods to include were: wholemeal flour, pasta, dried peas, eggs, sugar, milk powder, carrots, vegetable oil and, of course, kiwi fruit (3). Although many people in developed countries focus on protein intakes, the reality is that very few of us actually consume less than recommended (2).
Other food choices that can minimize your environmental impact include (4):
- reducing intakes of foods that have low nutritional value – the extras that are high in sugar, fat, and sodium but low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber
- increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables that are seasonal and field grown
- ensuring fish is coming from sustainable stocks
- drinking tap water instead of bottled water.
It has been suggested that obesity and environmental sustainability are the two most pressing concerns with respect to food and nutrition. Watching your portion sizes to ensure you are only consuming what you need can help maintain a healthy body weight AND reduce your environmental impact (2).
Reduce Food Waste
According to the Environmental Protection Agency
“more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in municipal solid waste”
Food waste in landfills emits methane during the decomposition process and negatively impacts public sanitation, not to mention wasting the resources (water) and chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides) used to produce the food.
What can you do to reduce your food waste? Eat leftovers (easy and cheap lunch!) and freeze foods when plentiful. Composting is a double benefit – divert waste AND improve the soil in your garden!
Buying Local and Seasonal Foods
Buying local CAN reduce your impact on the environment and support local business. Importantly, however, buying local is not always best. If buying local means you are purchasing tomatoes grown in Canada in January, it is likely these products are grown in greenhouses that are designed to turn our winter wonderland into the tropics. The environmental cost of maintaining the green houses far exceeds that of transporting the foods from other areas. It some cases, food choices matter more than food distance.
One study in the US found that transportation only accounted for an average of 11% of the total greenhouse gases associated with food. They note that changing the equivalent of one day per week worth of calories from red meat and dairy to chicken, fish, eggs, or veggies would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than buying ALL locally sourced foods (5).
Do your research know what is seasonal and what can be grown in your area to determine if your choice is actually best for the environment. Do you really need mangoes from Mexico in September when you can have a locally grown apple? How Bad Are Bananas? is a great book detailing carbon footprint of various foods (among other things).
Here are some other questions to ask yourself to minimize the environmental impact of your diet:
- Refrigeration: Can you get by with a smaller fridge/freezer and shopping more frequently? OR at least not standing in front of the fridge with the door open for minutes at a time waiting for a full meal to magically pop out!
- Packaging: Is there an option to buy the same product in a minimal or more environmentally friendly package?
- Energy Used in Cooking: Can you select a meal option that has little to no cooking required on occasion – think salads for dinner?
- Transporting Foods: Can you get to and from the grocery store or market in a more sustainable way? Can you have your food delivered? (we love spud.ca)
No Baloney’s advice? As our population continues to grow and the cost of food increases (both in dollars and environmental impact), we need to rethink our food choices, sources, production methods, and our needs vs. wants. Education will be the key in encouraging people to rethink their traditions – Thanksgiving or not – and change their habits. Lead by example (but limit the soapbox!) and help those around you make the most environmentally sustainable choices when it comes to diet and lifestyle.
- Garnett T. (2008) Cooking up a storm. In: Food, greenhouse gas emissions and our changing climate. Guildford, UK: Food Climate Research Network, Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey. Retrieved October 13, 2013 from http://www.fcrn.org.uk/sites/default/files/CuaS_web.pdf
- Macdiarmid J.I. (2013) Is a healthy diet an environmentally sustainable diet? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 72:13-20.
- Wilson N. et al (2013) Foods and dietary patterns that are healthy, low-cost, and environmentally sustainable: A case study of optimization modeling for New Zealand. PLoS One 8(3): e59648.
- Sustainable Development Commission (2009) Setting the Table: Advice to government on priority elements of sustainable diets. Retrieved October 13, 2013 from http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/data/files/publications/Setting_the_Table.pdf
- Weber, CL. (2008) Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environ Sci Technol 42(10):3508-13.