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What are the most environmentally 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.
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 the most environmentally friendly foods and how to determine if a food is eco-friendly.
First off, what is sustainable eating?
Sustainable foods are foods grown with lower environmental impact, both on our planet and 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.
- Support the local economy that offers jobs and builds stronger communities.
The Most Environmentally Friendly Foods:
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 requiring 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.
Although healthiest in moderation compared to fresh produce, whole grains help keep us energized while providing essential minerals and antioxidants not found in other foods.
Some whole grains to consider include:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Rye bread
2. Organic Fruits and Vegetables
It’s impossible to exclude fruits and vegetables from a sustainable food list. However, when choosing fruits and veggies, always opt for local & seasonal produce and choose organic if possible.
Organic farming is a cleaner agricultural practice that aims to decrease pollution, improve soil and water quality, and nurture 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
A 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.
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.
Additionally, most legumes are among the best options for plant-based protein. For example, half of a cup of beans contains 7 grams of protein and is equivalent to eating an ounce of meat.
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 might even incorporate them in homemade desserts like brownies, cake, cookie dough, and even ice cream!
4. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens are a staple in vegan diets and some of the most environmentally friendly crops in agriculture.
Growing leafy greens takes up very few resources. Some require frequent irrigation, but a drip irrigation system is usually effective in reaching shallow root systems and preventing water waste.
Leafy greens are also adaptable to cooler weather conditions between 50 F and 70 F and can withstand fall and winter frost. Examples include:
- Swiss chard
Spinach and amaranth can sustain summer conditions, to up to 90 F.
As such, agriculturists can produce high yields of leafy greens year-round.
You can benefit from many vitamins and minerals when you eat leafy greens, including folate, calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, and iron.
In addition, leafy greens also contain vitamins B, A, C, E, and K, which may help prevent cancers and promote heart health.
Tofu is sustainable and healthy food, ideal to substitute for your protein needs. It requires less water to produce (compared to meat), and it also emits 13 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef.
Buying organic tofu is even better since it ensures the use of non-GMO crops and avoids synthetic chemicals that can also be damaging to the environment.
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 in large-scale agriculture.
- 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 time between the farm and your table, the less likely nutrients will be lost.
- It can often be cheaper, too.
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.
Only purchase what you truly need. For example, consider composting your scraps for your lawn or garden if you cooked an excessive amount of food (no judgment – we’ve all been there) and have leftovers days later.
Store Food Correctly
Store your food in airtight containers to prevent it from going bad too quickly in the refrigerator or freezer.
Best of all, you can do all of that without using single-use plastics!
Instead, you can opt for glass, stainless steel, or silicone containers which are the healthiest & most sustainable options for storing food.
Use Reusable Bags
We produce over 300 million tons of plastic waste worldwide annually — most of which end up in landfills, the environment, and our oceans.
It could take up to 1,000 years for plastic bags 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.
Skip the Plastic Wrap
Containers and packaging accounted for 82.2 million tons of plastic waste in 2018. When you are at the grocery store, consider choosing fruits and veggies without plastic wrapping. Bring reusable mesh produce bags for your fruits and vegetables to easily avoid veggies wrapped in plastic.
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 And 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. However, if they’re ripe, you might consider baking with them.
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.
If you want to do your part in saving the planet, changing your diet is a great place to start.
Transitioning to plant-based eating is one of the simplest yet 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 us know in the comments below!