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What are the most eco-friendly foods, and is it possible to make a positive change by changing our diet?
The fact is that food production is one of the most ecologically polluting industries globally, and to be exact, it is responsible for one-quarter (26%) of the world’s GHGs.
However, not all food is created equal from a sustainability standpoint; a massive amount of overall greenhouse gas emissions derive from our food system, specifically animal farming.
Let’s take a closer look at a list of the 7 most environmentally friendly food groups. In the end, you will find a list of easy tips on how to incorporate more sustainable habits in your diet, in general.
OK, now let’s begin!
First off, what is sustainable eating?
Sustainable foods are foods grown with lower environmental impact, both on our planet and in the communities that produce them. Environmentally friendly foods are:
- Local and seasonal.
- Are grown without hazardous pesticides and chemicals.
- Emit less greenhouse gas emissions and are made with minimal environmental impact.
- Use sustainable farming techniques and practices to conserve natural resources.
- Supports the local economy that offers jobs and builds stronger communities.
7 Sustainable & Eco-Friendly Foods (List):
1. Whole grains
Whole grains are unique because they require significantly less water than any other food we consume.
For example, one kilogram of wheat requires 1,644 liters of water during production compared to a kilogram of beef which requires 15,415 liters of water.
Additionally, grains can withstand extreme heat and drought conditions and be stored for longer durations after harvesting, making them excellent staple food.
Whole grains help keep us energized while providing essential minerals and antioxidants. Some great options to consider include:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Rye bread
2. Seasonal fruits
Fruits require less land and water, have a lower carbon footprint, and often thrive in diverse climates, reducing the need for energy-intensive climate control.
Additionally, choosing locally sourced and seasonal fruits supports local agriculture and reduces transportation emissions, compared to out-of-season imported fruits.
Another great benefit of seasonal fruits which are harvested at their peak, is that they end up with better taste and nutritional quality.
On top of seasonal, you can also choose organic, whenever you can. When you pick organic fruits, you support organic farming practices, and you will consume produce that’s grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs.
3. Seasonal veggies
It’s impossible to exclude vegetables from a sustainable food list. They demand fewer resources, emit fewer greenhouse gases, and contribute to more efficient land and water usage compared to animal-derived foods.
When choosing your veggies, your best choice is local, seasonal, and if possible – organic. Here are some of the most sustainable choices you have in general:
Root vegetables are hearty and can grow well in a variety of soil types, requiring minimal soil preparation and reducing soil erosion.
They are often well-suited to diverse agroforestry systems, which can promote biodiversity and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers. Some options include:
- Sweet potatoes
Grown quickly and can be harvested multiple times from the same plant. This allows for efficient land use and reduced waste.
They typically have a shorter growing cycle, which means they require less water and fewer resources. Good options are:
- Swiss Chard
- Collard Greens
They can grow on agricultural waste, reducing land use. They can boost soil health, and have a low carbon footprint when cultivated indoors. Choose between:
- Oyster mushrooms
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Portobello mushrooms
Legumes (pulses) are another excellent option for environmentally friendly and widely produced foods available. It takes significantly less water to produce high yields of bean and lentil crops.
Beans come in wide varieties, such as pinto, kidney, black, and cannellini. Lentils are versatile and come in red, black, green, yellow, and brown. Then, you also have garbanzo beans (Chickpeas), split peas, green peas, etc.
Cooking with legumes offers just as much versatility, and you can use them to create delectable traditional or ethnic dishes with them, such as:
- Soups and vegetable chili
- Dips and hummus
- Veggie burgers
You can even incorporate them in homemade desserts like brownies, cakes, or cookie dough!
5. Tofu/Soy products
While it is true that large-scale soy production is often linked to deforestation, the high demand for soy is primarily driven by the demand for animal feed in animal agriculture.
The truth is that just 7% of soy is used directly for human food products such as tofu, soy milk, edamame beans, and tempeh. 77% of global soy is fed to livestock for meat and dairy production. (Source)
Furthermore, soy requires less water to produce (compared to meat), and it also emits 13 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef.
And if you wondered, less meat is nearly always better than sustainable meat, to reduce your carbon footprint.
When it comes to soy for human consumption, tofu, and other soy products are sustainable, healthy, and a great way to reach protein needs.
If you want to make sure the soy you get is sustainably grown, GMO-free, and pesticide-free – buy organic.
6. Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds are energy-dense nutrient-rich and generally considered sustainable.
While water usage, land, and transportation vary and the resources can be higher, they are still considered as a more eco-friendly option, when compared with other animal-based protein sources.
You can follow these tips to make sure you consume nuts & seeds sustainably:
- Balance your nut & seed intake to ensure their sustainability and reduce excessive strain on resources.
- Locally sourced nuts are often more sustainable due to reduced transportation emissions, so see what are the local options and choose them, instead of imported ones.
- Nuts & seeds grown using eco-friendly methods, such as minimal pesticide use and agroforestry, tend to have a lower overall environmental impact. Look for certifications such as organic or Fair Trade.
- Choose minimally processed seeds that have undergone fewer production steps, reducing their overall environmental footprint.
Herbs are typically grown in small quantities and can be cultivated in gardens or on small plots of land, making them suitable for local and urban farming.
They can enhance biodiversity by providing habitats for beneficial insects, contributing to natural pest control.
Growing herbs at home reduces the need for packaging and transportation, further minimizing environmental impact.
By incorporating herbs, you contribute to a greener, more flavorful, and healthier food.
While you should consider your local climate and growing conditions when choosing herbs, here’s a list of sustainable herbs that are easy to grow and versatile:
- Basil: A staple in many cuisines, basil grows well in pots and gardens.
- Mint: Mint is hardy and can be invasive, so it’s best grown in containers.
- Thyme: Thyme is drought-tolerant and has antimicrobial properties.
- Rosemary: Rosemary is a resilient herb that loves sunlight.
- Parsley: Parsley is rich in vitamins and antioxidants and versatile, adding freshness to your food.
- Chives: Chives are easy to grow and have delicate onion-flavored leaves.
- Cilantro (Coriander): You either hate it or love it. Despite being my worst enemy, cilantro is fast-growing and used in various cuisines, from Mexican to Asian.
- Oregano: Oregano is drought-tolerant and flavors Mediterranean dishes superbly.
- Lemon Balm: Lemon balm has a citrusy aroma, attracts pollinators, and supports biodiversity.
- Sage: Sage is a sturdy herb with an earthy flavor. It’s often used in stuffing, but it’s also wonderful for infusing oils and teas.
- Dill: Dill is easy to grow and adds a unique flavor to dishes. It’s a favorite in pickling and seafood recipes.
- Bay Leaves: Bay leaves can be grown in pots or gardens.
5 Extra Tips for Sustainable Eating
There is more to sustainable eating, and the following tips are as important as the food itself. To be an environmentally friendly eater, consider this:
There are plenty of reasons to shop for locally grown food. To name a few:
- You will support local families and farms.
- Reduce the carbon footprint accumulated through harvesting, transporting, and processing foods.
- You will eat tastier food! Food imported from far away is older, has traveled on trucks or planes, and has sat in warehouses before it finally gets to you.
- You will rely on seasonality and get better quality local fruits and veggies. The shorter the distance between the farm and your table, the less nutrients will be lost.
- It can often be cheaper, too.
Organic over conventional:
Organic farming is a cleaner agricultural practice that aims to decrease pollution and improve soil & water quality. It nurtures a self-sufficient cycle of farm resources.
In traditional farming, specific materials and methods have detrimental effects on the environment and human health.
Buying organic produce means you can rest assured your food hasn’t been exposed to the following:
- Synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides
- Food irradiation
- Genetic engineering
While you don’t have to buy all of your fruit & veg organic, some of the common “dirty” produce often contaminated with pesticides includes – strawberries, spinach, peaches, apples, grapes, and tomatoes. It will be best if you prioritize buying them organic.
While organic food isn’t flawless, and it also has some cons, in many cases, it can be the better option. Curious to learn more about it? Read my article to find the pros and cons of organic produce.
Reduce food waste:
Between 30%-40% of the food supply is wasted every year. It is crucial to reduce the food we waste at home, and you can do that by simply paying attention to the amount you buy at the grocery store.
Do that by being more mindful, and only purchasing what you truly need. You can also consider composting your food scraps, even if you live in a small apartment.
Lastly, find out how to store your food properly to prevent it from going bad too quickly.
Use reusable bags:
Plastic bags could take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade, at which point animals and humans may consume residual microplastics.
When grocery shopping for sustainable food, either bring reusable bags to the store or reuse your single-use plastic bags from a previous shopping trip.
You can also support your local farmers’ market, and purchase from there; most times, the fruits and veggies are loose, without any packaging.
Buy lone bananas & funny-looking veggies:
Consumers often prefer to shop for produce without blemishes, but delicious fruits and vegetables go to waste.
A study conducted by Karlsbad University in Sweden determined that bananas are the most wasted fruit in the grocery store due to brown spots.
The next time you’re at the store to buy bananas, collect the singles that have been torn from their batches instead. Most likely, they’ll be tossed out.
Also, the “ugly” or funny-looking fruits and veggies are the first to get thrown away because of how they look. However, you can save those because there is nothing wrong with their taste or quality.
Understanding the origin, cultivation practices, and environmental impact of different foods is essential for making sustainable decisions.
But if you want to have more sustainable eating habits, transitioning to a plant-based diet is one of the simplest yet most powerful ways to start helping the environment.
While the agriculture industry has a long way to improve its sustainability, there is plenty you can do as a consumer to support a healthier planet.
Which of these environmentally friendly foods is your favorite and why? Let me know in the comments below!