Sustainable Eating: Great for You, Great for the Planet

July 10, 2015

Sustainable Eating: Great for You, Great for the Planet

Sustainability is a lifestyle choice that focuses on reducing our carbon footprint on the Earth, as well as reducing the use of the planet’s natural resources in order to preserve them. Sustainability can be applied to many areas of our lives. For example, sustainable energy utilizes renewable sources of power like solar, wind, water, and geothermal energy; sustainable housing utilizes sustainable materials like recycled metal, recycled paper, and natural fibers.

In other words, sustainability is about considering where our food, clothes, energy, and other products come from. In this article, I will focus on sustainable eating, food sources and health benefits.

What’s going on: Intensive animal farming and industrial agriculture.

Most food produced in the U.S. today is no longer grown or raised on sustainable farms. [1] During the 1900s, U.S. agriculture began to industrialize, increasing the use of resource-intense inputs like synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Farms became larger and more specialized, driving many small farms out of business. This resulted in a handful of powerful corporations controlling the market. [2]

Although industrial agriculture is able to produce great quantities of food at low prices, it does so by utilizing practices that are threatening to the human health, environment, and animal welfare. [3] Intensive animal farming practices hold thousands of animals confined to small spaces, often indoors, promoting unnatural conditions. For example, in the production of eggs, chickens are exposed to artificial light cycles and given vitamin D to promote production year-round. [4] On average, a chicken lays one egg a day but not every day of the year. In the 1900s the average egg production was 83 eggs per hen. Today it is well over 300.

See the magnitude of industrial farming?

Not only does this manipulation and unnatural conditions affect the stress level of the farmed animals, it also affects their health due to confinement. Because of this, animals are given antibiotics, vaccines, and chemical preservatives to avoid disease (e.g. bird flu).

Another example is farmed fish, which are kept in concentrations never seen in the wild. [5] This not only increases the amount of pollution (condensed feces) into our oceans, but affects the quality of the fish because they rub against each other and their cages hurting themselves and causing disease and infection. Drugs then must be used to try to keep fish alive in such deplorable conditions. [6]

Similar conditions including close confinement systems, discomfort and injuries, lack of daylight and fresh air, restriction of exercise, health problems caused by fast growth and high productivity, forced or overfeeding, reduced lifespan, and fast-spreading infections are also true for cattle and hog production. These conditions contribute to the risk of contamination of the meat by viruses and bacteria present in the manure and urine the animal is constantly exposed to. [7] The FDA reported that in 2009, 80% of the antibiotic sold was administered to livestock. These antibiotics are similar or identical to those given to cure human illnesses, creating drug-resistant bacteria reaction and increasing healthcare costs.

Why should we choose sustainable foods?

Because the food we eat is one of the factors that determines how healthy we are. In general, intensive farming conditions have a negative impact in human health. Bioaccumulation refers to the accumulation of pesticides and other chemicals in an organism when these are exposed to a toxic substance at a greater rate than at which that substance is lost. This means that these chemicals (antibiotics, tranquilizers, and hormones) and pollutants are passed on to us when we consume animal meat or produce from unsustainable farms.

The good news is that, as consumers, we have the power to decide which foods we purchase and consume. Supermarkets listen to what customers want, so if we request more organic and local foods, they will be available to us. Think about it. If we demanded seasonal fruits and vegetables and we purchased them from local farmers markets instead of consuming produce that has travelled half way around the world, we would decrease the carbon footprint or greenhouse gas in the environment helping to reduce global warming. Not to mention that we would be consuming more fresh foods and fewer contaminated foods.

Where does the food we eat come from?

We have the power to ask for better ways to produce, process, transport, and consume our foods. Choosing to buy from local and regional farms that use sustainable practices that get the most out of the land while preserving and improving the health of the soil, water, and local ecosystems will help expand healthy and nutritious food access for everyone.

Another way to increase sustainability is by consuming organic-raised, grass-fed and free-range meat. Plant-based diets (or increased consumption of fruits and vegetables) have been shown over and over to reduce risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes, and it is in my experience as an RD that having clients go one or two days a week without eating meat can make a great difference as well.

The recent emergence of urban gardening is also a great step toward sustainable eating. Becoming involved in food production by participating in a community garden or even building your own home garden is a great way to control how our food is grown. It promotes the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as providing access to nutrient-rich foods that otherwise would not be available to some individuals. Urban gardening also positively impacts our dietary habits.

Use your knowledge and power to choose sustainable foods that nourish your body and at the same time preserve the environment. We have one body and one planet to live in, don’t you think is worth being conscious about sustainable food sources?


Sources:

1-4. Sustainable Agriculture, The Basics, http://www.sustainabletable.org/246/sustainable-agriculture-the-basics, June 15, 2015

5,6. Welfare Issues for Farmed Fish, http://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/fish/welfare-issues-for-farmed-fish/, June 15, 2015

7. Human Health Hazards from Antimicrobial Resistant Escherichia coli of Animal Origin, http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/48/7/916.full, 2009
    8. Superweeds: The Next Generation of GMO Crops, Herbicide Use and Associated Health Impacts, https://apha.confex.com/apha/142am/webprogram/Paper302903.html, November 2014


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