How to Feed Your Family Well & Not Mess Up the Planet
Disclaimer: This cheat sheet has been written under the following assumptions: A) Humans are meant to be eating a primarily plant-based diet; B) Common sense is sometimes more reliable than biased science; C) You shouldn’t eat food that you don’t enjoy. Also, we’re by no means experts, but the sources we cite most definitely are, or they've gone to painstaking lengths to base their opinions on expert information. Either way, we encourage you to check out the references listed at the end of this guide and reach your own conclusions.
HOW TO CHOOSE ANIMAL-DERIVED FOODS
Animal-derived foods are implicated in a wide range of sustainability issues, not to mention health and ethics. The general consensus is that less is better. But how much less?
If you eat meat, limit your overall intake to 15-30kgs a year – that’s roughly a 2.25 oz serving every other day.**1
Other best practices include choosing grass-fed if you eat beef, shopping at local farmers markets, and buying only what you can eat to minimize waste which accounts for 20% of GHG (green house gas) emissions. Check out the meat, egg and dairy sustainability index below to see how different animal foods and certifications rank for sustainability.
SUSTAINABILITY INDEX: MEAT, EGGS & DAIRY
(ranked from least to most sustainable for GHG emissions, water and soil) **2
beef, lamb, cheese, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs, milk 2%
ANIMAL WELFARE LABELS
On their own, many labels such as cage free, free range, pasture raised and others don’t mean much. Look for verifiable labels instead. The following ratings compare the 5 leading certifications in the U.S., based on a 34-item checklist of animal welfare issues.**3
Please note that all 5 of these choices are better than conventionally-raised animal products.
Humane Farm Animal Care certified: 4.5 stars
Animal Welfare approved: 5 stars
Global Animal Partnership rated (Whole Foods)*: 2.5 stars
USDA / Organic certified: 2.25 stars
American Humane certified: 3.5 stars
SAFETY IN SEAFOOD
The following list consists of the top five seafood options recommended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program, and equally ranked according to the following criteria:
environmental impact, mercury levels and recommended levels of Omega 3 fatty acids.
Freshwater Coho Salmon (tank farmed)
Alaskan Wild-Caught Salmon (fresh or canned)
A note on tuna: In terms of sustainability it's best to choose troll or poll-caught tuna from the U.S. or British Columbia, but note that tuna has considerably less Omega 3 compared with the other options on the list above. **4
HOT TOPICS IN FOOD SUSTAINABILITY
GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS
The GMO debate revolves around multiple questions to which there aren’t clear-cut answers, including environmental impact, safety, poverty, our growing global population and #monsantoevil. What is clear is that unlike 64 other countries in the world, the US currently does not require mandatory GMO labelling. Since GMOs are in 75% of our food, the easiest way to avoid them is to choose USDA organic. **5
The use of palm oil isn’t necessarily bad - palms are a very resourceful crop compared to other vegetable oils. But because it’s used in so many products (palm derivatives can be found in about half of all packaged goods) and because much of it is harvested unsustainably in tropical rainforests that are home to endangered species like orang-utans and tigers (the equivalent of 48 football fields are cleared every minute!) it’s important to look for labels like RSPO or Green Palm.
Soy can be found in almost all the animal products we consume as it’s a chief component in the diet of livestock (70% of the world’s soy is fed to animals). Because soy plays such a key role in our global food supply, and because its production contributes to massive deforestation and water waste, choosing soy that is certified sustainable along the food chain through groups such as Pro Terra and RTRS is one way to help. Better still is to just eat less animal products. **6
Like other monoculture crops, sugar cane contributes to agro-chemical dependency, soil erosion and water management issues as well as habitat loss in environmentally sensitive regions such as the Mekong Delta, the Atlantic Forest and the Great Barrier Reef. You can help your pancreas and the planet by limiting your intake of total added sugars (from all sources) to a maximum of 6 teaspoons a day and choose products made with sustainable sugar that’s Bonsucro certified. **7
Nothing attests to the power of marketing hype like the pervasiveness of bottled water, one of our most ignorant and unsustainable consumption habits. For starters, 1/3 of bottled water sold in the US originates as tap. From the crude oil used to produce the bottles, to the GHGs created in transporting them, to current estimates of 8 million tons of plastic waste that ends up in our oceans every year, bottled water is a natural disaster. There are over 1bn people on the planet who don’t have access to clean drinking water – if you’re reading this you’re probably not one of them. Take back the tap!
IS BUYING ORGANIC PRODUCE WORTH IT?
The underwhelming answer to this, like most questions, is: "it depends".
The highly respected non-profit Environmental Working Group claims that choosing organic is more important for some fruits and vegetables than others. **9
For fast facts, check out:
BONUS! MAXIMIZING PLANT-BASED NUTRITION
Eating a variety of plant-based foods is one of the best choices you can make for the planet, but which ones are best for your health? **10
Raw leafy greens are great for heart health and athletic performance on account of their high nitrate content (nitrates in meat are a different story). Here are your best choices, ranked hi to low: arugula, cilantro, butter leaf lettuce, mesculun mix, basil, beet greens, swiss chard
Cooked cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage and kale are great for detoxifying and immune function - you don’t want to miss out on this family of veggies*! To preserve the vital compound sulforaphane, be sure to chop up these veggies a few hours before cooking or sprinkle ½ a teaspoon of mustard powder once cooked. Other great cooked vegetables include beets, eggplant, mushrooms, asparagus, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes
Berries are your best fruit choice – eat them daily! Contrary to popular thought, blueberries aren’t the king of berries, that idea is based on outdated data. The healthiest common berries in terms of in-vitro antioxidant levels are: blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, then blueberries and wild strawberries.
Beans, beans, the magical fruit, the more you eat ‘em the more you... reduce the planet’s dependency on animal sources of protein! Black, Kidney and Mung are great choices. So are lentils, especially red. And yes, eating a moderate amount of soy is fine.
**1: Adapted from 'Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory' by Vaclav Smil, who argues that 15-30 kg/year are the per capita values for rational meat consumption.
**2: Adapted from the Climate and Environmental Impacts section of the Environmental Working Group's Meat Eater's Guide and Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States, published by the Proceedings of the National Acadamy of Sciences of the United States of America.
**3 : Adapted from the Humane Farm Animal Care's Comprehensive Animal Welfare Standards Comparison by Program for Chickens, Beef Cattle and Pigs.
**4: Adapted from the consumer guides section of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program.
**5: Adapted from the 30-part special series entitled Panic-free GMOs featured in Grist Magazine.
**6: According to the World Wildlife Fund, "as a multi-stakeholder initiative involving the mainstream soy industry, the RTRS is the best international mechanism to move soy producers and traders toward responsible production that does not harm nature or people.
**7: The recommended daily maximum limit of 6 teaspoons of sugar per day is for children ages 2-18 and was published on August 22, 2016 by the American Heart Association.
**8: Adapted from 'Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water', written by Pacific Institute co-founder Dr. Peter H. Gleick.
**9: Adapted from the Environmental Working Group food news guides.
**10: Adapted from NutritionFacts.org, a strictly non-commercial, science-based public service provided by Dr. Michael Greger, New York Times bestselling author of How Not to Die, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues.