“Is it sustainable?” It’s an increasingly important question to ask when it comes to what to eat.
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) defines sustainable diets as:
“Those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”
But what does that mean in practice?
Sustainable eating is all about choosing foods that are healthful to our environment and our bodies.
Food is responsible for 30% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. The Brazilian savannah is being destroyed faster than the Amazon due to soy production – most of which is fed to the animals we eat. Over in Borneo, ancient tropical forests are being felled to plant palm trees to provide palm oil for our bread and low-fat spread. Daily reports of rising food prices – not to mention civil unrest arising from food insecurity – mean that what we eat matters more than ever before. Taking personal responsibility for our eating habits and understanding as much as possible about the food we eat is a matter of urgency.
The issue of sustainable diet may be complex, extending beyond the systems and structures of food production. But on a micro level, maintaining a diet in which processed food is kept to a minimum (it is resource-intensive to produce and unhealthy to boot) is a simple and effective solution. By knowing your ingredients, you can feed a family for far less than by buying the equivalent amount of ready-made meals. Farmed livestock can be consumed in moderation. Eating seasonally also makes a big difference – there’s a myriad of reasons why we should all be eating more fruit and vegetable.
Shop locally. Shopping locally is a healthy and fun way to support your community. It keeps your money in the community in which you live, supports the families producing your food and fosters a healthy environment of diversity. Plus, getting to know the people producing your food is like getting to know a neighbor. Through this relationship we can know exactly how the food we eat is produced.
Grow something. It could be herbs in a pot, tomatoes on a patio or a small plot in your yard. Not much gives you a greater appreciation for what it takes to create food than to grow your own. You understand the multitude of factors involved in making plants thrive, the attention needed to successfully grow food and how precarious the process can be. Those insights likely will influence how you buy, use and dispose of food.
Initiate conversations about food. Talk with the farmers at your market, personnel at your grocery store and restaurateurs, or the growing number of people who are paying attention to how foods get on their plates. You can discover new tips, learn about new resources and find more local, sustainably-minded food producers and providers.
Eat seasonally. Blueberries don’t grow in Montana during January, yet you can still buy “fresh” at this time. This means they’re likely coming from far, far away. When possible, focus on foods that are available in season where you live and you’ll be supporting sustainability.
Tap your tap. Liquids are some of the heaviest items to ship around the country and lots of fossil fuel is needed to tote them. Instead of purchasing bottled beverages, use a refillable bottle and fill it with water from the tap or filter.
Retool your grocery list. Think bulk foods, more minimally processed foods and more plant-based meals. Doing so translates into less packaging and waste, less energy used to produce certain foods and fewer artificial ingredients — those not found in nature — and chemicals in the food system.
Eat mindfully. One of the simplest things you can do to eat more sustainably is to practice mindful eating. Focusing on what you’re eating allows you to reflect on where your food came from and how it is nourishing your body. Additionally, by tuning in to your hunger signals you may learn that you don’t need as much food as you thought, and resize your meals accordingly. By paying more attention to how we eat and thinking about the “bigger picture,” we may alter our food consumption and reduce food waste, as well as become encouraged to seek out more sustainable food sources.
It’s clear that what we put on our plates has a big impact on the environment. Eating more healthfully and more sustainably go hand-in-hand, meaning we can develop sustainable eating practices that improve our own health while also benefiting the health of the planet.