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Tips for a Green and Sustainable Diet

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Updated April 22, 2014

There is a growing concern about how our lifestyles affect our global environment. Two words that are growing in popularity are "green" and "sustainability." They both refer to the idea that products can be high quality and good for the environment, or at least not harmful.

The cost of putting food on our tables has gone down over the past few decades, mostly due to advances in agricultural techniques that allow farms to produce massive amounts of crops and animals in less time or in smaller spaces. But there are questions about how this food production is affecting our planet. Fisheries are being over-fished, rain-forests are being destroyed to make way for food production, and fertilizer and pesticide use is increasing as farmland erosion occurs worldwide. Large-scale farming also relies on massive amounts of fossil fuels and water. Plus even more fuel is used to transport foods to the market.

Some forms of agriculture are more sustainable. They pollute less, may be better for the environment and include more humane farming practices for food animals. You can support sustainable agriculture by following a few green tips for your diet.

Tips for a Sustainable Diet

Support locally grown foods. Food grown close to home requires less fuel and other resources to get to your grocery store. Eating local is also a good way to support your local economy because you buy products produced by farmers who live in your area. You can also join a Community Supported Agriculture group in your area to make supporting nearby growers easy.

Eat less beef. Meat products require more resources to produce because the animals need to be fed until they are large enough for slaughter. It takes eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. From this perspective, chicken is a more sustainable choice because it takes about two pounds of grain to produce one pound of chicken. Fish and seafood require even less - about a pound in a half to produce a pound of farm raised fish.

Choose fish carefully. When you buy fish, you can choose either wild-caught fish or farm-raised fish. The most sustainable choices include farm-raised plant-eating species such as catfish, tilapia, and trout, which are grown in farm ponds that take up relatively small amounts of space and are quite productive. Wild-caught salmon and pollack from the Pacific ocean are also fairly sustainable, but farm-raised salmon and other carnivorous species such as tuna and sea bass are not as sustainable when compared to their plant-eating counterparts. Also avoid predator species such as swordfish, marlin, bluefin and albacore tuna.

Go organic. Plants that have been raised organically have not been exposed to artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Organically produced animal products such as milk, eggs, poultry and seafood are produced from animals that have not been raised with growth hormones or given antibiotics. Organic foods are becoming more common in most grocery stores, just be sure to look for the "100% Organic" label on the product.

Read labels carefully. Some labels, such as the 100-percent organic labels are regulated, but words like natural and healthy aren't regulated to mean anything specific. Other labels have low standards, for example free range chickens only need to be outside for five minutes each day. They can spend the rest of the day confined in small cages and still be considered to be free range. When you read the claims on food packaging labels, look for some indication of a certification from an organization - they're more likely to be sustainable.

Grow your own foods. Depending on the time you have and the amount of land you own, you can grow some of your own food in a vegetable garden or possibly raise a few chickens for poultry and eggs. But even if you don't have much space, you can still grow a few greens or tomatoes in a small container garden on your deck or if space is even tighter you can have a little herb garden in your kitchen.

Buy shade-grown, fair-trade products. Many of the regions where coffee and cocoa for chocolate are grown are suffering from loss of rain-forest and tree growth as land is cleared for farming. Shade-grown products can help preserve the plant life.

Reuse grocery bags and containers. Many stores offer inexpensive but durable grocery bags that you can reuse every time you shop. Some stores offer incentives such as giving you a few cents off your order when you bring a bag back in. Reusing grocery bags cuts down on the number of plastic or paper bags that need to produced, and since most of them end up in the garbage, reusing garbage bags cuts back on litter and landfill use.

Sources:

Consumer Reports. Eco-labels. Accessed March 23, 2010. http://www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/eco-home.cfm

Cunningham William. Principles of Environmental Science, 5th Edition. McGraw-Hill.

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