Since starting my zero-waste lifestyle, I have adopted a mostly vegetarian lifestyle (I still eat fish occasionally) because of the environmental impact of industrial livestock production. Cutting meat from my diet has been surprisingly easy, but reducing (or eliminating) meat consumption is not the only way to improve your environmental impact through the foods you eat.
Living in a global society is great for many reasons, but it also has environmental side effects that contribute to global warming. Living in the U.S., I now have the privilege to eat pretty much anything I want, any time of year, seasons be damned. But while eating foods from around the world increases our pallet, it also increases the size of our carbon footprint. I had an ah-ha moment the other day when I was looking at a variety of apples at Safeway. Some were vaguely U.S. grown, others came from Washington, and others came from New Zealand (meaning a piece of fruit is more well-traveled than I am). It is ridiculous to me to buy apples (in Washington of all places) from another country, and on top of it, that the imported apples were cheaper than some of the more local apples.
According to a 2008 report from ATTRA (A National Sustainable Agriculture Assistance Program), food miles account for 14% of energy use in the U.S. food system. This is not the highest area of fuel use (they are in order: home refrigeration and preparation, production, processing, then transport), but it is also one of the easiest to address (I am not going to give up my refrigerator but I can give up highly processed foods or food that has to travel far distances to make it to my plate).
Before my zero waste journey started, I saw Whole Foods as a yuppie mecca to be mocked, but now I find myself shopping there far more regularly. At places like Safeway, the norm for food labeling seems to be the country of origin, but not the state. But by shopping at Whole Foods, I can decide if I am comfortable with expanding my definition of “locally grown” to California and Oregon, or if I want to shop exclusively Washington grown. I don’t have any steadfast rule on how far away is too far when it comes to the states, but I am attempting to cut out anything grown outside of the U.S. (and maybe British Columbia since it is so close to my region of the Puget Sound).
One result of eating more locally is that I am eating foods that are in season. For Washington in October, this means things like beets, parsnips, Brussels’s Sprouts, spinach, and sweet potatoes (all foods I greatly enjoy). When food does not have the travel half way across the world to reach your plate, it can be picked closer to peak ripeness (i.e. when it tastes best). It is also more environmentally friendly to grow what makes sense for the land and climate, rather than trying to force a region to grow something it is not suited to with the added inputs of extra water, fertilizers, and insecticides. Eating locally grown foods in season will not only result in more flavorful food and fewer food miles, it is challenging me to eat a more varied diet and try new foods.
Unfortunately, now that I am trying to shop exclusively U.S. grown, I am going to have to give up some foods, like bananas and avocados that do not grow anywhere near the Puget Sound. I am however allowing myself the freedom to be less picky at restaurants. So while I will still not eat meat when I go out, I will at least give myself the freedom to have guacamole. I am also allowing myself to drink coffee, because not only does coffee contribute to my ability to be a productive human being, going to coffee shops is also a significant part of my daily life. These choices will make the whole effort more sustainable for me on a personal level in the long-run. If zero waste was about nothing but giving things up altogether, it would not be joyful and it would be hard to enjoy meals out with friends if I were trying to figure out the food miles of every ingredient in my meal.
I am also making an effort to give up packaged foods, particularly individually wrapped candy bars (which there is usually an abundance of in my office). I know that eating those Twix bars is not good for my health, but that never bothered me because I was only hurting my own body. Now, I realize that eating packaged foods is not only bad for my health; it is also harming the planet and will hurt future generations. I am not saying that I’ll never eat a bag of chips again, but gone are the days when I will just mindlessly eat candy at work while I try to beat the 3 o’clock slump.
I don’t think that this style of eating will work for everyone. But I challenge you to take little steps, like Meat-Free Monday or looking at where your produce is grown when you buy it. We all need to eat, so if we are in the position to be able to pick how we eat with relative ease, we should think of how our food choices affect the world around us.