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In most areas of the country, the fall harvest is in or well on its way. With so much fresh food available, it's easy for many of us to take it all for granted. But our choices about what to eat can have a big impact on the environment.
Recently, in the New York Times Magazine, writer Michael Pollan wrote an open letter to the next President about the need to create a healthier and more sustainable food supply, and he cited some surprising facts about the current state of our diets.
Today, he says, it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food. That's why our food system uses 19% of all the fossil fuels consumed in the United States and is responsible for as much of 37% of all the greenhouse gases we emit.
Our agricultural system is also dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, factory farming, genetically modified organisms, synthetic additives like hormones and antibiotics, and other unsustainable things.
As a result there's an urgent need to transform our food system into one based on renewable resources that will ensure an environmentally safe and nutritionally superior diet. Such a shift may be challenging to engineer, but it's far from impossible. And there's plenty we can do to both encourage it and transform our families' own food supply while wait. Here's our list of ways to make your supper more sustainable:
- Eat as much as organic food as possible.
- Eat locally grown food. While there's debate about whether or not local food is superior from a carbon perspective, it supports our regional economies and a healthier food supply based on smaller family farms that preserve undeveloped land while creating fewer impacts than factory farms.
- For the same reasons, do as much of your shopping as possible at farmers markets. Get to know your growers and connect your family to the sources of their sustenance.
- Eat less meat and dairy products. According to researchers, red meat is responsible for 30% of our food supply's total greenhouse gas emissions and dairy products create another 18%. Replacing them with chicken, fish, or eggs just one day a week is equal to driving 760 miles less each year. Switching to a 100% vegetable diet one day per week is like driving 1,160 miles less per year.
- Grow your own food. It doesn't take much space to produce a lot of food, which makes even tiny urban gardens practical sources of family nutrition. Keep in mind that during WWII, backyard "victory gardens" produced 40% of all the fruits and vegetables eaten in the U.S.
- Plant heirloom seeds. These remarkable old-fashioned (and often nearly extinct) fruit and vegetable varieties preserve vital biological diversity and genetic information, and have more color, flavor, and nutrition than modern hybrid crops.
- Learn to can. It's easier than you think, and it lets you stock up during seasonal harvests when foods are inexpensive. Virtually any food can be canned and will be cheaper and more sustainable than store-bought versions.
- Purchase a big stand-alone freezer. New models are energy efficient and will quickly pay for themselves via the savings you'll realize by simply freezing foods in bulk for later use. Your diet will also benefit from having affordable access to a wider variety of fresh-frozen foods out of season.
- If you're not a big cook, become one! Free of sodium, preservatives, and other additives, meals prepared at home from whole foods are far healthier and more nutritious than processed foods and other prepackaged items.
- Encourage your kids to appreciate food. Don't "dumb down" their diets with simplistic menus and bland meal choices. Instead, feed them what you eat from an early age and they'll quickly develop a surprisingly sophisticated palate. Teach them where food comes from, why that matters, how good fresh whole foods are, and how to make the healthiest eating choices.
For more information about food and our food supply, we recommend reading In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver; Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair by Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters; and The End of Food by Paul Roberts.
To learn more about eating better and healthier, visit Slow Food USA.