Eating for the planet
I love food and eating. Food fuels our bodies and is how the earth directly supports our existence, and yet we have corrupted this relationship in so many ways, harming the planet, animals and even our health in the process. In this episode, I get into the issues with our food and find the 4 big ways that we can eat better for the planet - and for our bodies.
Meals are how we fuel our bodies, but they are also important as time to gather as a family, to celebrate together. Meals signal feelings of home, family, identity, and culture. They are tied to place, the region, our history, and the generations of cooks and bakers who have come before us.
Eating locally means that you are sampling what grows in the area, as well as the cultural traditions, stories, legends, and meaning behind the food. Just think of paska bread, or the polish white borscht, or hummus, and so on. They all hold meaning.
We use food to mark holidays, celebrate together weddings and birthdays as well as funerals and loss. Food is deeply connected to our culture, heritage, traditions, and of course, also to the earth.
And YET food is often thought of negatively. We seek to minimize, to watch what we eat, to restrain ourselves. It can be a focus of negative self-talk. We can become obsessed with it - too much of it, too little of it.
But, the reality is that food provides calories for us to survive on. A calorie or Kilojoule is simply a unit of measurement of energy, used in physics and science. We need those calories to move our bodies, to think, to breathe, to record a podcast, or run a marathon, or run after kids, or all of the above! Quite simply, our bodies require energy and food provides that to us. In a very literal sense, the earth provides what we need to live.
Unfortunately, there are many things that we have corrupted about this basic relationship:
- Our thoughts on food. We have forgotten that food is how we live.
- We are often dismissive of the cultural, and social importance of food, stopping to grab a sandwich between meetings or eating in the car after a drive-through fast-food purchase.
- We have forgotten to be reciprocal and respectful with the planet and the animals as we take what we need. This is the practice of many Indigenous cultures, and yet we rarely even think to care for the wellbeing of the animal that died for our meal or for the earth's harvest that sustains us.
- We have created “food”, in quotes, that is full of chemical additives and preservatives that las little to do with nature.
- We are disrespectful to the animals that we use for food. Sometimes through inhumane treatment, and unnatural feed for livestock, looking for a profit before nutrition and animal welfare.
- We then have the audacity to throw away between 30 and 40% of all food grown on earth! This is ridiculously wasteful, I get into this issue more in - Episode 12 Why Cooking Dinner is an act of sustainability.
- Agricultural practices have been using up so much land, we are squeezing wildlife out of existence in many cases.
- Don’t forget the chemicals - pesticides, herbicides, food dyes, preservatives, etc.
- Finally, we haul our food all over the globe in production, adding the carbon with every kilometer traveled.
How NOT to Eat for the Planet:
Go to your grocery store or local fast food joint and buy a burger with a side salad - you want to be healthy right? That meat has come from an animal raised in a large-scale feed-lot operation. It has been fed grain, likely corn, likely genetically modified corn.
The feed-lot conditions are not good for animal welfare, as many animals in close conditions mean that the animals may be anxious, and in some cases, they can be mistreated, and inevitably they will produce large amounts of waste i.e. manure. Yes, manure is a great natural fertilizer; however, in feed-lots, we just have too much of it and not enough surrounding land to spread it on, so it becomes a liability.
The manure in excess amounts can contaminate surface water like streams and lakes, as well as ground water with harmful strains of bacteria such as E. coli. Animals in close quarters such as feed-lots may be fed low doses of antibiotics. And, this is an incredibly harmful practice for us all.
In Canada, 82% of all antibiotics used are used in animals, not in people. Why is this an issue? Because this can lead to the emergence of "superbugs". These are regular microbial pathogens that become resistant to being killed by antibiotics. This happens when the antibiotics are used to kill pathogens, but it doesn't kill all of them. Some survive. And, those that do survive multiply with others that have survived. And, eventually, the antibiotics don't work at all.
This is a really big concern as many of those microbial pathogens in animals can also infect humans, and then we don't have a way to treat the infection, because they are resistant to the antibiotics. This is a global concern fuelled by our agricultural practices as well as the inappropriate use of antibiotics in the human population.
Finally, this meat is processed in large processing plants, often far from the market. They may have poor working conditions for their employees. Furthermore, contamination of the meat can occur during processing, potentially affecting large batches of meat. The final product is then wrapped in plastic and styrofoam and sent to market, using more fossil fuels.
The Bun - Wheat and other grains are often grown in large-scale mono-culture crops where producers use expensive, heavy equipment to till and harvest. This machinery is not only extremely costly for the producer, but it is also so heavy that is compacts the soil, reducing the soil organic matter, which is an ongoing concern in agriculture. Soil becomes less of a living part of the ecosystem and more an inert substrate with chemicals used to fertilize and control pests rather than relying on natural predator insects and the fertilization from manure.
In the natural system we have nutrient cycling, with manure adding nutrients to the soil as well as organic matter, but instead of allowing this to happen naturally we have over-concentrated the manure, creating a problem, and then we have to use chemicals to fertilize, and we loose soil organic matter in the process. We have essentially taken a working natural system and created 3 major problems out of it.
Now, what about that salad?
If it is a typical commercial salad, it is just a bit of lettuce, grown with water and likely some pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers. It may have been picked by poorly paid labourers, who were in turn exposed to those harmful chemicals. Then that lettuce was packaged in plastic, and shipped to market, very quickly, yet with spoilage along the way. Especially if the refrigeration breaks down, or if there is some kind of delay.
Now, that is one way to have a burger and a salad. And that way is harmful to animals, workers, the agricultural producers, the environment AND our bodies.
Can we take that very same meal, a burger, and a salad and make it better for the planet, for the animals and for us?
Sure! Here's how:
Here is the same burger and salad meal, but eating for the planet:
First, carefully consider if you are going to eat meat. If you choose to not eat meat, that is great. Perhaps you can make your own burger with legumes and seeds, or you can purchase a ready-made veggie burger. While this does come with higher carbon emissions and packaging than home-made it is still a good alternative to meat.
If you are going to eat meat, it is all about quality and quantity. Red meat that is grass-fed rather than grain-fed is much healthier for you, AND it is better for the planet too. Grass-fed cattle are using range-land that is not suited to other agricultural purposes and has a lower environmental impact and doesn't have the issues of feed-lots.
If the cattle are sustainably pastured, the manure doesn't enter the surface or ground water and can be naturally processed and broken-down in nature, adding nutrients to the soil, while building soil organic matter.
However, because all meat has a significant carbon footprint, we should be eating meat and dairy less often, and considering it a side dish or an occasional meal. Carbon emissions come from not only the energy used in agriculture, and the distance that the meat is shipped, but also from the animals themselves that naturally produce methane as part of their digestion. Unfortunately, methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, about 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.
So, if we eat meat, it should be less often and of higher quality. As Michael Pollan writes in the Omnivore's Dilemma,
“When chickens get to live like chickens, they'll taste like chickens, too.”
Our animals should be raised humanely without the use of antibiotics except for therapeutic use (to treat illness or infection). Try sourcing from a local producer. You can get to know them at your local farmer's market. It is lovely to learn about where the farm is located, how farming supports the family, how they raise and treat the animals, and so on.
Look for a producer within 100 kilometres of your home, or ask if the restaurants that you go to source from local, small-scale producers.
Can you get local with the bun too? Perhaps from a local bakery, maybe made with whole grains? It tastes great, and supports your local businesses!
What does a salad look like when we are eating for the planet?
This is not just greens, but mostly vegetables - that is where all of the nutrients are! We are looking for local, pesticide-free veggies. Perhaps they were grown in your own garden, or by local producers, purchased at the farmer's market or local grocery store. They were grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, using good tilling practices, on a smaller scale, with integrated pest management to minimize or eliminate chemical insecticide use. The workers were paid a fair wage, and treated with respect.
These veggies should be the majority of our meal. As they say, eat the rainbow for health! And, when we do that with local vegetables, we reduce the distance that the food has traveled and helped out our local agricultural producers. And, we get the benefit of the most nutritious food that is in season and has not traveled thousands of kilometers to our dinner plate.
When we are eating for the planet, we should also be eating mindfully, allowing ourselves to enjoy the flavours, and expand our palates beyond salt and sugar. Letting meals be a time to connect with family, friends, our bodies and the planet.
So, we can eat the same meal, with entirely different environmental AND health outcomes.
Start with the BIG 4 to Eat for the Planet (and also for your health) - which is not really a surprise there!
- Eat whole foods - this means, there is no ingredient list. Frozen is a great alternative if it is not in season, but always choose unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
- Eat LESS meat and dairy - sure, you can also go vegetarian or vegan, and that is super. However, if that is not for you, just choose to eat less meat. It is really great for our health and for the planet. Meat should be a side dish or a once in a while addition to our meals.
- Eat more local and in season - check out farmer’s markets, or start your own garden, look for local products at the grocery store, and ask for it in restaurants. If blueberries are not local or in season, stick to the frozen variety. They usually taste better, have traveled less distance, and may have more nutrients as a result!
- Get closer to your food - think MORE not LESS
- Think more diversity, more variety, more fun, more flavour, more enjoyment, more connection to the natural world, yes, more time spent preparing - but that can be part of the enjoyment as well
- We can be more thankful, get more enjoyment, and even more nourishment from our meals when we make these changes.
- Eating for the planet also creates more benefit to our local agricultural community, as we focus on locally produced food, and higher quality food.
- This type of diet allows more land to be shared with wildlife!
- And, its effects are multiplied when we show others how to eat well, at home, through cooking with friends or just by example.
- Finally, eating for the planet allows us to more often have our food choices reflect our values of respecting the earth and our bodies.
So, that is the answer to…How to eat for the planet!
The Key Messages from Today’s Episode:
- Food is fuel.
- There is environmental harm and harm to our bodies with much of our current diet and agricultural practices.
- Those problems include: excess carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, synthetic chemical use, animal welfare problems, and pollution.
- Today's standard burger and salad meal is harmful to the environment and to ourselves.
- We can make it much healthier for both!
- Start with the BIG 4:
- eat whole foods
- eat less meat and dairy
- eat more local and in season
- get closer to your food - pay attention to it, expand your palate and let your food reflect your values
As the American writer, Lewis Grizzard said,
"It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
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