Although food is essential to sustain and enjoy life, we often forget that our food choices affect other people and the environment. However, making good food choices is not just morally responsible. It can be good business. In a 2018 survey, 75% of Millennials said they have changed their purchasing habits to make more eco-friendly choices.
A key part, although not the only part, of making eco-friendly food choices is consuming organic food. According to one report, organic food sales totaled over $45 billion during 2017.
Although the term “organic” is subject to a certification program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many people do not understand how organic food is produced, handled, and processed. Moreover, many people seek out organic food because of its benefits to their health, without considering the environmental impact of organic food and non-organic food.
Rather than thinking about “organic” as an attribute of certain foods, it may be more useful to think of the elements that go into making food organic, as well as the other factors that may reduce the environmental impact of the food you eat. Here are ten factors that influence the eco-friendliness of food:
One hallmark of organic food is that it is raised without chemical insecticides and herbicides. Chemical insecticides can help to protect plants from insects that damage the plants and spread disease and chemical herbicides kill weeds. However, these chemical pesticides raise many health concerns.
Chemical pesticide residue on fruit and vegetables can expose consumers to the chemicals in the pesticides. Even thorough washing may be inadequate to completely remove all traces of these pesticides from our food.
Similarly, farm workers can be exposed to chemical pesticides while working in the fields. Their exposure level is much higher than the end consumer because they handle crops before they have been washed. Moreover, farm workers who apply chemical pesticides may absorb the pesticides through their skin and inhale the pesticide vapors in the air.
Finally, people living near a farm that uses chemical pesticides may be exposed. Occasionally, this occurs through the air. However, the most common source of contamination is water sources. Runoff from fields that have been treated with pesticides can carry chemicals into wells, lakes, rivers, and ground aquifers.
Because organic food is raised without chemical insecticides and herbicides, it may be susceptible to attacks by insects and weeds. As a result, yields of organic crops are usually lower than non-organic crops, leading to higher prices for organic food than non-organic food. However, it is generally believed that pesticide-free organic food is safer for consumers, farmers and farm workers, and water sources.
However, the lack of chemical insecticides and herbicides does not mean that these plants are left defenseless. Good insects can be imported into a garden to battle bad insects. For example, ladybugs eat aphids and wasps lay eggs inside aphids, eliminating these pests that suck the sap from plants and infect them with disease. Similarly, certain plants, such as marigolds, repel pests and attract pollinators, such as bees, when planted near crop plants.
Chemical fertilizers are, in some ways, responsible for increasing yields to the point that most of us never have to grow our own food. However, chemical fertilizers can raise many potential environmental issues. Thus, organic food is raised without chemical fertilizers.
There are concerns that chemical fertilizers can cause health problems for consumers, farm workers, and farmers. Similarly, chemicals from fertilizers can enter water sources through runoff from fertilized fields.
However, fertilizers also raise environmental issues. Chemical fertilizers contain nitrogen, which is absorbed by plants to produce chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the chemical that makes plants green and allows plants to convert sunlight into energy.
However, microbes in the soil convert nitrogen to nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. This gas is released into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change.
Another concern about fertilizers is their effect on topsoil. Plants naturally absorb nutrients from the soil. In a more natural state, plants that die would decompose under the influence of microbes and replenish the nutrients in the soil over time. However, these natural processes take a long time, so farmers replace these natural sources of nutrients with chemical fertilizers. Ironically, the topsoil becomes more and more depleted of nutrients as more chemical fertilizers are added because the organic matter from decaying plants never makes it into the soil.
Organic compost, which consists of decayed plant matter, can replace chemical fertilizers when raising organic food. Even though compost lacks the chemicals in fertilizer, it can still increase yields and, more importantly, replenishes nutrients in topsoil naturally.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
GMOs are not allowed to claim that they are organic. That is, all foods certified as organic by the USDA are GMO-free.
In a way, most food crops are GMOs. Selective breeding and hybridization have created versions of food crops that are very different from their naturally-occurring ancestors. Beginning as early as the mid-1800s, scientists had attributed these ancient farming practices to genetic selection. Since that time, the best schools in agriculture have sought to improve upon Mother Nature with plants that are more resistant to adverse conditions and produce hardier fruits and vegetables.
However, GMOs represent something different. GMOs do not take advantage of naturally-occurring genetic mutations to develop more beneficial characteristics in food crops. Rather, GMOs are typically transgenic, meaning that they contain genes from other species to carry their characteristics to food crops. For example, in one famous case, a fish gene was spliced into tomato plants to make them less susceptible to frost. These tomatoes were never commercialized, but this example is iconic of the possibilities, both good and bad, presented by GMOs.
There have been no specific health concerns raised about GMOs. That is, no human diseases or disorders have been tied to the consumption of GMOs. However, there are concerns about the effects of GMOs on the environment.
Like the cases of invasive plants and animals, many environmentalists are concerned that GMOs could be difficult or impossible to control. This could lead GMOs to spread so widely that they crowd out native plants or even other crop plants, resulting in loss of biodiversity and crop losses.
This concern is not unfounded. Rapeseed plants — the plants that produce canola oil — that have been genetically modified to resist the chemical pesticide Roundup have escaped from controlled fields into the wild in the U.S., Canada, and Japan. These GMOs were intended to be sterile, but have cross-bred with feral rapeseed plants to create a hybrid. Since this plant has never existed before in either nature or the wild, scientists know almost nothing about it.
Although animal manure is considered an organic fertilizer, treated sewage, also known as sludge, is not. That is, for the USDA to certify food as organic, it must be grown without sludge.
The issue with sludge is not necessarily that it is made from human waste. Manure and human waste are dense with nutrients that plants need. However, human waste is not the only component of sewage. People commonly dispose of household and industrial cleaners, pharmaceuticals, and other toxic substances by pouring them down the drain or into a toilet. Although sludge has been heat-treated to kill any microbes, it is not purified to remove these other substances.
As a result, unintended toxins can make it into sludge. When the sludge is used to fertilize plants, these toxic chemicals can work their way onto, and into, the fruits and vegetables. Soil testing has revealed that sludge can carry heavy metals, dioxins, and other carcinogens into the soil.
In addition to the restrictions on artificial chemicals used to grow organic fruits and vegetables, the USDA has defined “organic meat” as meat that is raised without hormones and antibiotics.
Hormones were implanted into animals so that the animals grow faster. In fact, cattle implanted with a hormone pellet grows up to 20% faster than non-implanted cattle. This means that they are ready for slaughter sooner and ranchers can turn over faster.
Research on whether synthetic hormones in meat causes any adverse health effects. However, erring on the side of caution, organic meat is raised without added hormones.
Farm animals may also be injected with antibiotics. The purpose of this is not to keep you, the consumer, safe from food-borne illnesses. Rather, it is to prevent diseases from spreading among the farm animals, wiping out the farmer’s or rancher’s animals.
The concern about animals raised with antibiotics is that the practice can create stronger and hardier antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. For example, antibiotic-resistant E. coli strains likely arose from the use of antibiotics in chicken farms. These strains cause minor illnesses in healthy people but can be fatal in young children, senior citizens, and people with compromised immune systems. Even steps such as proper storage of meat in fridge freezers are not enough to kill these strains. Rather, meat and vegetables infected with these E. coli strains have to be cooked beyond recognition or thrown out.
The movement for organic meat is sometimes conflated with the movement for humane meat. Organic meat does not mean “humane” and there is no requirement that organic meat is raised and slaughtered humanely. Rather, organic meat merely refers to the lack of artificial chemicals used to raise the meat.
That said, humane meat, particularly as it relates to free-range, feedlot free, and cage-free, may have less environmental impact than factory ranches and farms. Factory ranches and farms produce a great deal of animal waste that is allowed to run off into fields and water sources. In fact, it is believed that the recurring outbreaks of E. coli bacteria in vegetable fields are due, at least in some cases, to runoff of animal waste from ranches and farms.
Free-range animals, on the other hand, wander freely rather than being penned into feedlots. When animals graze and forage in pastures, there is less concentration of waste which is less likely to produce massive runoff.
Although there are ways to raise organic and humane meat, we should not overlook the fact that meat is very resource-intensive and results in a massive release of carbon. Raising meat consumes much more water, energy, and land on a per calorie basis than plants. Moreover, animals produce methane, the second most common greenhouse gas, whereas plants absorb carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. Consequently, many scientists believe that one of the most eco-friendly food choices you can make is to reduce your consumption of meat and increase your consumption of plant-based foods.
In fact, this matches up with the recommendations for a healthy diet. Dietitians recommend that half of your diet comes from fruits and vegetables and the other half come from whole grains
and protein sources. When choosing protein sources, dietitians recommend fish, poultry, nuts, and beans, while limiting consumption of red meat, cheese, and processed meat. Moreover, dietitians recommend avoiding added sugar. Not only will your dentist love you, but your risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes will also be reduced.
When making eco-friendly food choices, you should consider the carbon used to both produce and transport the food. It can be difficult to determine how much carbon is used to produce your food. For example, for a farm located in another state, you would have no way of knowing whether a farm uses wind power or solar energy rather than being connected to the electrical grid.
However, if you buy locally, you realize many benefits including:
- You can develop an idea of how much carbon the farm uses to produce your food.
- You know how far the food was transported.
- You contribute to the local economy and support local farmers and businessmen.
These considerations have given rise to the locavore movement in which people seek to fill their diet with locally sourced food.
While it may not be a primary consideration, you may want to seek out food that uses efficient custom packaging. For example, buying in bulk and storing in reusable containers can reduce the waste associated with packaging. Similarly, seeking out recyclable packaging, such as paper wrapping, rather than single-use packaging, such as styrofoam, can minimize waste. You can also reduce waste by storing food safely so that it does not need to be thrown away uneaten.
Making eco-friendly food choices does not necessarily preclude eating out. On the contrary, the best caterers and restaurants that produce high-quality food can bring us happiness and while minimizing the environmental impact of that food. In fact, those in the food service industry often have an excellent feel for local organic food sources, efficient food service equipment, and humane meat. If you find a restaurant with an environmentally-conscious owner and chef, you might want to support it as part of your eco-friendly food choices.
Making eco-friendly food choices does not mean that you will be eating twigs and caterpillars from your backyard. However, it does mean understanding terms like organic food, GMO, and locavore. It also means that you need to understand where your food comes from, how it was produced, and how far it was transported. Additionally, being conscious of the nutritional content and packaging allows you to get the most out of your food while having the least impact on the environment.