Moving food from its place of origin to the table is complicated. Feeding the world's burgeoning population is polluting our air, water and soil. Producers destroy entire ecosystems to make room for farmland; fossil fuels become as much a part of food production as sunlight (see References 4). If you can't grow your own food, there are greener options out there. You must understand what to look for to become part of the solution, however, rather than the problem.
Visit a Community Supported Agriculture program in your area. Use the Local Harvest website to find out about membership fees, which vary by program. You pay to "join" a local farm. As each harvest ripens, your membership entitles you to a share of the produce, usually weekly. Many CSAs only handle produce, but some include eggs, poultry and meat. Joining a CSA means that you are supporting local agriculture and eating local food, saving the carbon emissions of long-distance food transportation.
Look around your community for local produce markets, butcher shops, dairies, fish shops and restaurants. Ask where the food comes from -- just because a place is small doesn't mean they source locally. Many do, though, and you'll be supporting local farmers and saving carbon emissions.
Look for the "USDA Organic" seal when you shop. This seal ensures that the food was produced with respect to the environment and for the animals involved by using renewable resources, practicing soil and water conservation, and keeping livestock in a manner more humane than factory farms (see References 1). In fact, the Access to Pasture rule of 2010 made it mandatory for organic meat and poultry producers to allow livestock outdoor access, and ruminants like cows access to viable pastureland during grazing season (see References 2). Additionally, antibiotics or hormones don't contaminate organic animal products.
Visit the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides to find out which fruits and vegetables to be sure to buy organic, based on pesticide residues. It's preferable to buy all organic all the time, but that's not practical for many people because of financial or availability reasons. The guide will show you how to make those choices.
Check food packages for an independent third-party humane certification. Many animal welfare organizations have created their own standards for the humane treatment of livestock, and producers who meet those guidelines use their organization seals on their packaging. Common certifications include the Humane Farm Animal Care "Certified Humane" seal, the Animal Welfare Approved "AWA" seal and the American Humane Association "American Humane Certified" seal (see References 5). The standards vary per organization, with the AWA being the strictest in requiring all certified producers to raise their livestock on a pasture, and only awarding certification to family farms (see References 6).
Visit the Blue Ocean Institute's website to find out which fish and shellfish you can eat without contributing to overfishing or to the pollution or endangerment of the fresh or coastal waters and ecosystems. Choose these when eating out; buy organically farmed, or sustainably caught, fish at the grocery store.
Consider becoming a vegetarian. You don't have to become vegan, but the fewer animal products you eat, the better. In a study published in 2009, Harold Marlow et al. found that a meat-based diet had a greater impact on water and energy use than a plant-based diet, and it used more fertilizers and pesticides (see References 4, page 3). The land it takes to feed a single cow could grow enough food to feed many more people than the meat produced from that cow.
- Some foods are "100 Percent Organic," and labeled as such; foods labeled "Organic" are 95 percent organic. Foods labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients" are at least 70 percent organic. (See References 3)
- Bring reusable tote bags to the grocery store with you so you don't have to use petroleum-based plastic bags or paper bags that may not be sustainably harvested. Some grocers give you a discount if you use reusable bags.
- Don't assume that the "organic" label denotes the best choice. If it's a choice between organic produce trucked in from 1,000 miles away and fruits or vegetables grown just ten miles away, it may be better to choose local products and save the carbon emissions.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Service: National Organic Program -- Going Organic
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: National Organic Program -- Access to Pasture Rule for Organic Livestock: Frequently Asked Questions
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Service: National Organic Program -- Understanding Organic Labeling
- "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Diet and the Environment: Does What You Eat Matter?; Harold Marlow, et al.; May 2009
- Humane Farm Animal Care: Humane Farm Animal Care Comprehensive Animal Welfare Standards Comparison by Program
- Animal Welfare Approved: Standards
Angela Brady has been writing since 1997. She works as a certified personal trainer, weight-loss consultant and sports nutritionist. A lifelong dancer and yoga devotee, she has competed in gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, softball and soccer. She is also an authority on sustainable design, having studied, practiced and written extensively on the subject.
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