You’re likely already using reusable totes at the grocery store, but you probably could be filling those bags with more eco-friendly food choices.
And we’re not just talking about the avocados being flown across the world to top that toast.
“The bottom line is that the biggest environmental footprint comes from how food is produced,” explains “nutrition doctor” P.K. Newby, ScD, MPH, MS, an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at Harvard University who teaches courses on how food choices affect the planet.
For example, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture is the largest consumer of water on the planet. It also contributes to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which majorly impact climate change.
Of course, your time is currently spent scouring the back of every label for added-sugar stats, and it’s impossible to evaluate each individual food on environmental impact. Instead, adopt these small changes to your overall diet to protect the health of the planet in the biggest ways.
1. Eat less meat. Period.
“The best single thing anyone can do for the planet is it eat less meat,” especially beef, says Newby, and there’s a ton of evidence to back her up. Raising livestock for food requires an incredible amount of resources compared to plant-based foods, in terms of water, fuel, and land, and produces nitrogen pollution. “Not to mention that cows create methane, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas,” Newby adds.
Which isn’t to say you have to go vegan tomorrow. Every cut-back can help (hello, Meatless Monday!), and grass-fed, pasture-raised beef tends to be produced in more sustainable ways — although it will still have a much bigger footprint than plant-based protein sources like black beans, chickpeas, and lentils, which are particularly sustainable.
2. Swap salmon for sardines (or just eat mussels).
OK, maybe you can’t stomach sardines, but bigger fish like salmon and tuna are less-sustainable choices, since they often require more protein (aka resources) to produce than they provide. Plus, the small guys like sardines and anchovies are better for you, since they’re high in omega-3s and low in mercury. Even better: Bivalves like clams, mussels, and oysters don’t require feed and can actually help filter polluted waters. Another simple solution: Use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s trusted app or eatthesefish.com at the seafood counter.
3. Choose organic whenever you can.
Avoiding pesticides is not just good for you, it’s great for the earth. Studies have shown that organic diets have a smaller environmental footprint than conventional ones, and at organic farms, “the systems used tend to be more sustainable,” Newby says. (Think promoting soil health.) A 30-year side-by-side study of organic farming compared to conventional at the Rodale Institute found that organic farming uses 45 percent less energy, organic crops are more resilient in years of drought, and conventional systems produce 40 percent more greenhouse gases.
4. Stop wasting food.
According to the USDA, Americans waste 31 percent of the food supply, or 133 billion pounds of food, each year. Not only does that mean we’re tossing food that required a lot of resources to produce, it also means we’re filling up in landfills, creating more methane. “People should buy what they eat, and eat what they buy,” advises Newby.
5. Tap the tap.
Of course, there will always be moments when you’re out and have to reach for a Fiji, but though this point is basic, it’s important enough to point out: Try to go bottled only when you have to. “It takes fuel and water to make the bottles, and a great many end up in landfills and oceans,” Newby says. If you don’t have great tap water available, invest in a filter.