March is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' National Nutrition Month, and this year's theme is "Fuel for the Future." The future of our food relies on our ability to maintain sustainable systems while promoting the health of individuals and communities! We must ensure we can meet our needs today without compromising the ability to meet our needs in the future. This is sustainability!
The food we eat daily not only has an impact on our health but on the environment as well. Before our food is purchased at the grocery store, it is grown, processed, transported, and distributed. Each step produces greenhouse gasses that retain heat in the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in an overall warming effect. Global warming leads to large-scale issues like severe weather events, rising sea levels, and altered ecosystems. Approximately ¼ of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food. Agriculture and land use create more food-related greenhouse gases than transportation, packaging, and food waste. Red meat and dairy are associated with the highest greenhouse gas emissions compared to plant-based food sources. Forests have been devastated to raise cattle and grow crops to feed livestock. Methane from cattle and sheep and nitrous oxide from fertilizers also contribute to the production of greenhouse gases.
The harmful effects of food production can also come from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). This method is often used on large industrial farms with cattle, chickens, and pigs. The idea is that if you put a lot of animals in a small space, you can save money. However, this results in a buildup of toxic waste that negatively impacts the health of the surrounding communities. CAFOs result in contaminated water, pathogen exposure, reduced air quality, and increased incidence of asthma.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics developed food system principles that promote the current and future health of individuals, communities, and the natural environment.
A healthy food system should be:
- Health-promoting: Reduce the harmful effects of food on consumers and farmers. This includes pesticides!
- Sustainable: Able to regenerate and conserve natural resources, landscapes, and biodiversity.
- Resilient: Thrives in unpredictable conditions.
- Diverse: Include a diverse range of products, considers geographic differences, and support a diversity of cultures.
- Fair: Provides equitable access to food.
- Economically balanced: Affords farmers and workers a living wage while being affordable to the consumer.
- Transparency: Allows farmers, workers, and consumers to learn how their food is produced, transformed, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed.
So, what can you do as an individual to help promote sustainability in our food systems? Here are some habits to positively impact the environment:
Incorporate plant-based foods into your diet. A great way of incorporating plant-based foods into your diet is by consuming various fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. A plant-based diet is known for improving overall health and well-being and decreasing the risks for many diet-related conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes. Dietary guidelines also recommend limiting red meat and dairy consumption due to their saturated fat content. Reducing the amount of saturated fat in the diet can reduce one's "bad" cholesterol and possibly the risk for heart disease.
Shop locally by supporting your community and local farmers. Try shopping at local farmers' markets, where you can find a wide selection of fresh and locally grown produce. You also get to meet and talk to local farmers and learn how your food was grown, harvested, and prepared. When shopping locally, you keep money in the community and help cut down on the fuel needed to ship the food to the grocery store.
Swap out bottled water. Tap water and bottled water are generally comparable in terms of safety. Many bottled water brands use tap water; bottled water is heavy and requires a lot of fuel to ship around the country. It requires >17 million barrels of oil to produce enough plastic water bottles to meet America's annual demand. Consider buying a refillable bottle for a more sustainable way of living.
You can also try:
- Purchase foods with minimal packaging (minimize the use of paper plates and plastic cutlery)
- Shop foods that are in season
- Eat what you buy (freeze leftovers, make another meal out of leftovers)
- Shop with reusable grocery bags
- Try composting or donating food scraps
There are many ways to fuel your body while having less of an impact on the environment. Sustainability practices now will help us "Fuel for the Future!"