The most recent Greendex survey, which measures the environmental impact of consumer behavior, turned its focus to food this year. India’s diet ranked the most sustainable, featuring the fewest imported foods, the highest amount of self-grown food, the lowest amount of beef and pork, and the most fruits and vegetables.
The scorecard for American eaters, however, was at best a mixed bag. More people in the U.S. are eating local and organic foods and say they’re going to consume less meat and bottled water. But we also eat the most processed and packaged foods and the fewest fruits and vegetables of the 18 countries ranked.
The federal government is catching on to this health-ward trend in diets, and the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is considering issuing sustainablility recommendations in its 2015 report, akin to those the Greendex survey looks at. The guidelines inform federal nutrition programs such as food stamps and WIC, the food aid program for women, infants, and children. “A dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based food and lower in animal-based foods is more health-promoting,” Miriam Nelson, a Tufts University nutrition professor who chairs the advisory panel’s subcommittee on food sustainability, said in a public meeting last month, “and is associated with lesser environmental impacts—energy, land, and water use—than the current average American diet.”
The Greendex survey suggests that we’re looking for ways to make our diets more sustainable. But for those of us who get confused at the grocery store, pitting one label against another, what would that look like?
With Plants, More Is More
“The best thing that people can do is simply to eat more vegetables,” said Barton Seaver, director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. “Before more nuanced categories such as organic/local are introduced to the decision process, we need to develop a culinary preference for meals that are mostly plant-based.” The best way to find inspiring vegetables is at—you guessed it—the farmers market. You’re eating fresh food from your local foodshed; there’s the opportunity to support biodiversity by buying the weird stuff, and you can chat with the purveyors to find out what, exactly, you should do with red mustard and salsify. The great thing about the farmers market being a culinary cliche? There’s a head-spinning array of cookbooks devoted to the subject.
It’s Not Just What You Buy—It’s What You Don’t
“Shopping is ground zero for wasting less food,” explained National Resource Defense Council staff scientist Dana Gunders. That’s easy to forget while you’re at the store and facing the multimillion-dollar marketing machine of big food, but the same economizing tactics your mom used can be as beneficial to the environment as to the household bottom line: Meal planning, making (and sticking to) a list, a healthy dose of realism about what you’ll have time to cook (you’re not gonna get to that tilapia in time, you’re just not), and properly storing food in the refrigerator can all reduce waste.
Buy Less Beef and Lamb
Throw out an extra hamburger and the water wasted is the equivalent of a 90-minute shower, Gunders explained. And while beef is considered public enemy number one, lamb actually has the largest carbon footprint of any food item—50 percent higher than even beef.
Buy More Beans, Legumes, and Organic Tofu
Sticking to a plant and vegetable-based diet one day a week (Meatless Mondays, anyone?) does far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than eating an entirely local diet, says Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity. Beans and legume crops don’t require nitrogen-based fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, and they benefit future crops too. They’re nitrogen fixers, which means they take inert gases from the environment and turn them into useful ammonium which enriches soil environments. And they’re cheap, and loaded with protein! Buying dried beans and lentils from the bulk bin area of a food co-op or grocery store helps reduce packaging waste too.
But You Don’t Want to Be a Vegetarian?
An improvement can be as simple as trading out two “least efficient” beef or lamb-based meals for a couple of “more efficient” ones with chicken, turkey, or fish. When you do buy beef, opt for grass-fed options.
Replace Your Frequent (and Worst) Offenders
Check your usual grocery list items on the Environmental Working Group’s carbon footprint list or most frequently cooked recipes on Eat Low Carbon. If you grab a five-pound sack of potatoes on each trip to the grocery store or are whipping up salmon en papillote once a week, upgrade to the most sustainable options available. For the potatoes, that could mean buying the organic bag at the store, or asking a few questions of local purveyors at the farmers market to find out their growing practices. For the salmon, opt for wild Alaskan.
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appetit and other publications. Article first ran on TakePart.