“Climate-conscious foods” is the new trend among climate activists and environmental do-gooders alike. But what does it mean and how do we find out if our foods are environmentally impactful? Low-impact eating includes considerations like soil fortification, water use, and land use, among many other factors, making some unsuspected produce items more nuanced than most of us would think.
For instance, I enjoy eating meat, and I also care about the environment. Are the two mutually exclusive? Can only those who follow a plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diet truly be living an environmentally-friendly life?
The idea of a climate-conscious diet and vilifying animal protein got a boost from The Lancet, a scientific and health journal. Their EAT-Lancet diet vilified protein as both unhealthy for consumption and for the planet. However, well-known Registered Dietitian and author of Sacred Cow, Diana Rodgers rebuts some of the arguments against meat in Eat-Lancet. She states a few critical thoughts to those planning to remove meat from their diets:
- Ridding the world of animals for nutrition would not simply free up arable land for crop harvest—agricultural and animal land is not interchangeable.
- You need grazing animals for a healthy grassland ecosystem, as their movement stimulates growth, and diversifies the soil microbiome which helps it to serve as a water and CO2 sink. In fact, 85% of grazing cattle land is land that cannot be cropped.
- 90% of what cattle eat for feed is forage and plant leftovers that humans cannot eat, serving as upcycled food.
- 50% of meat byproducts, such as the carcass, is used for other products like insulin, leather, footballs, and medical applications.
A climate-conscious diet is nuanced and complex as you can see from just looking at red meat. Even those with the best intentions may not understand its intricacies.
Let’s imagine a man hypothetically named “John” for a moment. John lives in California and loves the outdoors. He is passionate about the environment and is greatly concerned about his own carbon footprint. Because of this, he has opted for a vegetarian diet, often shaming his meat-eating friends for their “destructive” protein choices.
A few of John’s favorite locally-grown foods include avocados, peaches, almonds, and plums. Well-intentioned John may not know that these vegetarian options have their fair share of impact on the environment and that meat production is actually a massive opportunity for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction.
Let’s take avocados:
Delicious and nutrient-dense, avocados are a staggeringly popular fruit among vegetarian and vegan dieters. However, did you know that avocados are considered monoculture plants, meaning that they are typically grown on a single parcel of land each year?
Monoculture crops are known to deplete soil because of a lack of biodiversity. Planting in the same place yearly strips nutrients from the earth, forcing farmers to use excess fertilizers to re-invigorate and restore soils for future plantings. While we know moderate fertilizer use can be sustainable, monoculture crops are generally worst for land degradation than polyculture crops.
Okay, well what about peaches?
Peaches are not the most environmentally destructive but John certainly did not realize just how large their water footprint is: it takes 109 gallons of water to make 1 pound of peaches. Peaches grown in areas with low-water reserves exacerbate water-shortage problems.
Almonds are a great treat!
They’re abundant in nutrients and energy-dense. But did you know it takes around 3.56 CO2e (Carbon dioxide equivalent) to produce 2.2 pounds of dry almonds? This is equal to a car driving about 8 and a half miles. Not to mention, it takes 1 to 3 gallons of water to just grow one almond, not including shelling and hulling.
While the water footprint is high, almonds can have a very small carbon footprint if responsibly farmed. To offset almond’s overall impact, be sure to mix up your nut choices—cashews, peanuts and walnuts have significantly smaller water footprints.
Please don’t take this as advice to eliminate avocadoes, peaches, and almonds from your diet; our bodies need nutrient-dense produce and nuts like these every day!
These examples are to shed some light on the the understated complexities of the foods we eat. We simply do not have the technology to properly provide transparency at every step of the supply chain with every food product to determine its water use, land degradation deforestation, and soil health, and so on.
But we can use trends to direct us to a diet that considers these factors in addition to others, like nutrient density.
Like John, many of us quickly determine foods to be “good” or “bad,” when the truth is we often don’t know the environmental impact of how a grower farms or a processor packages. We may trust a brand, a label, or a certification, but be cognizant that each food carries with it its own unique footprint.
The only way to stop any environmental impact would be to stop…eating.
But we would be remiss if we did not circle back on our meat discussion. John vilifies his carnivore counterparts for their “destructive” meat consumption. While we know beef a significant contributor GHGs solutions, cattle operations are actually a massive part of a large-scale solution for the reduction of GHGs.
Utilizing livestock for land management and cattle grazing to increase soil microbiome ultimately helps with carbon sequestration. Regenerative ranching can have vast positive effects on our land long term.
If meat is part of your regular and varied diet, be sure to include turkey or chicken as they often require less water, less feed, and less land.
And look into sustainable cattle operations and brands that are transparent with their growing methods and ones use third parties to certify their regenerative practices or partners—you can often find this information on a brand’s website.
For the reasons you just read, some vegans who seek fruits, nuts, and dairy as a primary source of protein and nutrients can actually have a higher carbon or water footprint than a flexitarian dieter who eats one serving of meat per day, and likely struggles to get in their full daily nutrient compliment without protein powder.
Let’s help John find some alternate climate-conscious food choices, shall we?
Here are a few foods that fall within this category. Of course, we are not suggesting we eat only the following foods. We recommend a varied diet both for your health as well as the health of the environment.
- Grains like quinoa, farro, and oats are much less resource-intensive to produce. They require less water and land than other foods, and can generally withstand various weather conditions, helping to reduce food waste. They are easily transported and can be stored for long periods.
- Beans, Pulses, and Lentils are debatably the most easily accessible, affordable, and sustainable foods. These require little water to produce and are natural nitrogen stores, meaning they store nitrogen in the soil for other plants to use—even after their life cycle. They also tend to be a fair source of protein.
- Nuts & Seeds are great sources of protein. While some nuts have a high-water footprint, cashews, peanuts, and walnuts are less water-intensive and are also a great source of protein and healthy fats.
- Mushrooms are incredibly versatile and have a very low environmental impact. Mushrooms are excellent at utilizing byproducts of other plants for nutrients to grow—upcycling crop byproducts to support their own growth by using them as natural fertilizers. Mushrooms use as little as 2 gallons per pound and contribute nominal CO2 emissions. Additionally, they are not land-intensive crops and can be grown close together in dark areas.
- Seaweed is a very cool plant that is full of beneficial nutritional value. It does not require any fertilizers to grow, and it can retain and store high amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen which can help to improve soil run-off. Bonus: it grows faster than plants on land, thus helping decrease CO2.
Regenerative ag practices
We have written at length about regenerative agriculture and its expansive role in combatting climate change. Because it is protective of existing lands AND focuses on regeneration it is debatably the most important variable in climate-conscious eating.
Many growers and farmers are now dedicating their production strategies to focusing on regeneration and sustainability. FoodInsights reports that 19% of US farmers are farming regeneratively, with Rabobank reporting that 70% of US farmers have taken steps towards implementing sustainable agricultural practices.
Because regenerative agriculture works to pull carbon from the air into stores in the soil, it quite literally has the potential to help reverse climate change. Regenerative ag is also not reserved for just organic or conventional farming.
Its strategies can be applied across the board. Brands like General Mills, Danone, Kellogg, Cargill, and Nestle, among others, are investing in regenerative technologies to rebuild biodiversity and eliminate deforestation.
Only buy what you’re going to eat
Food waste is the most important consideration when thinking about climate-conscious eating. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates food waste is between 30 to 40% of the food supply nationally. They also state that 31% of food loss is at the retail and consumer level, equaling 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food.
Food waste occurs due to many reasons—spoilage, issues during drying, milling, or transporting, processing that exposes food to damage and equipment malfunction.
In some cases, it is actually due to consumers not properly understanding the differences between the “best by,” “use by,” “sell by,” and “best before” labels. Some well-meaning consumers will toss perfectly good foods in an effort to avoid food-borne illnesses when they are actually tossing out something that is perfectly edible.
43% of our total food waste in the U.S. comes from homes, so it is our responsibility to help combat this. Some common sources of food waste include coffee, milk, apples, greens, bread, potatoes, and cooked pasta.
So be sure to make deliberate shopping lists to avoid overbuying and cooking too much. Freeze foods or share with others if they can keep for future consumption, and know how to read your labels so you avoid throwing out perfectly good food!
Genetically-modified and engineered foods
While genetically-modified technologies have existed for some time now, the last five years have shown us the reality of what feeding a growing population will look like…and it is hitting consumers in the face.
A consumer report from Mintel detailed that the acceptance of GM technologies is rising, and consumers are now leaning into biotech as a major solution for both climate change combatant strategies and feeding the world.
Consumer acceptance of GM technologies is critical in developed countries for purchasing choices, but even more vital, and quite frankly, life-saving for underdeveloped countries that rely on higher yields and pest-control technologies to produce enough food to feed their populations.
Between higher crop yields, higher farm profits, and in some cases, lower pesticide use, GM technologies contribute to economic, environmental, and health benefits.
Studies have also shown that GM crops help reduce GHG emissions by supporting carbon sequestration in the soil. This is done by facilitating reduced tillage, lowering the need to put more land under plow, and, in turn, prevents excess CO2 emissions from land use.
Now when you see a GMO label on foods, remind yourself that you are choosing a food that is helping the world, not hurting it.
The Bottom Line
Water use, land use, regenerative practices, and food waste all factor into a climate-conscious diet. Before making generalizations about certain diets or food groups, remember the nuances of how each food carries with it its own unique set of environmental impacts. Being aware is the first step, and broadening your diet choices is the next.