This month, we’re talking “local.” One part of local is food! And with food comes the big question…”what is an environmentally friendly diet?”
I get lots of readers who tell me that I ought to only be promoting the “right” diet. Of course, what the “right” diet is varies depending on which reader is talking to me — it might be paleo, vegan, vegetarian, locavore, gluten-free, and on and on.
In general, we don’t promote one of these diets as being “the” right one. People are simply too different and their needs are too different for us to tell you what you must eat. We do promote only real food, though! We understand and most of us follow the 80/20 rule ourselves, but you’ll never hear us say that factory-made products are healthy and should be used instead of unprocessed, whole foods. It’s a balancing act and we all need a treat, but we understand that certain choices are just that — treats.
Anyway, since so many people claim that one diet or another is the “best” and one reason for that is that certain diets are “the most environmentally friendly,” I thought I’d look into that. Is there one diet that’s actually ideal for the environment?
What Does “Environmentally Friendly” Mean?
First we have to know what we mean by “environmentally friendly.” In this case, it means:
- Has neutral or beneficial effect on the environment during production
- Minimizes or eliminates production of methane or carbon dioxide
- Minimizes waste
- Minimizes use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides naturally
We can already see that organic agriculture is going to be better than conventional. Let’s look further at what really makes up an environmentally friendly diet.
What Is an “Environmentally Friendly” Diet?
Most conventional farming relies heavily on “monocropping,” which is the practice of growing large fields of the same crop alone (usually corn and soy). But “intercropping,” the practice of growing alternating rows of two different crops, can increase yields by 25% or more, and decrease the need for pesticide or herbicide use, as well as decreasing soil erosion. It also happens to be better for the farmer, who, in a poor year, could lose one crop, but not all the crops. Diversifying is beneficial all the way around. (More on the benefits of polycropping.)
Monocropping has several other drawbacks, including requiring heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, polluting the water, creating famines, less biodiversity in the seeds/crops (including loss of heirloom varieties), destroying rain forests and other important parts of the environment and many more. In no way does monocropping fit our definition of “environmentally friendly;” quite the opposite!
This study shows that polycropping led to increased yields and were more profitable for farmers. Another study shows that despite spending $30 billion per year on insecticides, about 43% of the world’s top 8 crops are lost due to insects, disease, or weeds. Yet another study shows that although 2.5 million pounds of pesticides are used annually, about 40% of total crop production is lost. This study also shows that when insects become resistant to herbicides, GM crops require increased pesticide use with no greater yields.
We know from all this data that fruits and vegetables raised in a polycropping system are part of an environmentally friendly diet.
Local food is important, too. When food is transported around the world, it increases the use of fossil fuels to ship it. In general, local foods will have a smaller environmental impact, unless they were grown with the use of pesticides, in a monocropping style, or inside a greenhouse that required an electrical system (in which case, food that is less local may be a better option).
What About Animals?
Many object to the consumption of animals, stating that raising them is not environmentally friendly. Others say it’s fine, if production is pastured and not CAFO-style (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). What is the truth?
Animals raised in CAFOs produce an estimated 860,000 pounds of manure per day. This manure is considered toxic and can have significant negative effects on the water and soil in the area. These animals also require large amounts of monocropped corn and soy for their feed, which is often grown far away and shipped in. This report concludes that CAFOs are simply unsustainable, long-term. CAFOs have led to the need for prophylactic antibiotic use (“preventative” in their feed), arsenic in feed, and other chemicals to control disease. These chemicals, as well as any pesticides in their feed, may be present in the meat. CAFOs are responsible for about 9% of the total CO2 emissions.
In contrast, animals raised on pasture are healthier. Their manure is less likely to contain E. Coli or salmonella, and the manure can be used safely to fertilize fields. In practice, looking at Joel Salatin’s system, raising animals and a variety of crops together creates a so-called “closed system,” where animals eat food scraps and their manure is used to fertilize the fields effectively, which has allowed a large amount of food production on a smaller area of land, along with negating the use of commercial fertilizers.
What we can learn is that we don’t have to give up on animal foods; we simply need to source them from local, pastured-based farms.
What If There are No Local Sources?
This gets complicated and everyone will have a different answer. Some say that ideally, you only eat what is local to you, 90 – 100% of the time. Others say there are so many great health benefits to foods like seafood, coconut oil, etc. that are simply not local to most people and you should order these.
While ordering foods does increase the carbon footprint, I think it’s okay to order a percentage of your food for the health benefits. We personally do buy fish about once a week, coconut oil, almond flour, and some other things that are not local to us. The bulk of what we eat, we try to buy locally (meat, eggs, milk, some produce especially in season, and produce for preserving). Everyone is going to have a different comfort level about eating locally and seasonally.
The Bottom Line
Our “ideal” environmentally-friendly diet is going to depend on what our needs are, and what is available in our area. Those living in coastal regions may rely more heavily on fish, while those inland may not have much access. Sourcing food from local producers that don’t spray, but instead use an integrated farming system and sell locally and freshly-picked is going to be ideal. The long-range implications of the entire large-scale food industry are astronomical and very poor in nature.
Even better is to raise your own. Having a backyard flock of chickens and a pig or two, plus a large and diverse garden, is going to be the most environmentally-friendly.
It’s also important, in the kitchen, to use up everything. Animal bones can be used to make stock. Veggie scraps can be composted or fed to chickens or pigs. There is a way to use everything! I hope to discover this first-hand when we move to a farm in a few months (I hope, I hope).
And you know what? We don’t need to fight over the “perfect” diet. There is no perfect diet. What works for you may not work for another. Don’t preach that everyone should avoid wheat, or gluten, or meat, or dairy, or anything else. If that works for you, that’s great. But don’t mistake it for “the” answer. Everyone’s needs are different and there are many factors that go into it. Remember that when you are eager to share what has helped you!
What do you consider an “environmentally friendly” diet?
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