by Mo McNulty, PhD Student
The health of the planet affects the health of the people living on it. We depend on the Earth for sustenance even as we damage it. As noted in a summary by Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, “The eminent Harvard biology Professor Edward O. Wilson once said about ants, ‘We need them to survive, but they don’t need us at all.’” The food you eat has an impact not only on your own health, but also on the health of the Earth, so in celebration of Earth Day today, take a look at what you eat and see if you can make things better for the planet!
The more types of food we eat, the more nutrients we tend to take in. However, human actions are destroying biodiversity, through things like industrialization , climate change , and deforestation . We know that when greater diversity exists within an ecosystem, that ecosystem is more stable . Our food supply is becoming less diverse – 90% of the varieties of fruits and vegetables we once had are now lost .
Another problem with our food supply is that it’s becoming more difficult to meet the increased demand. The world’s population is increasing, meaning more food is needed, and wealth is increasing, meaning that different types of food are needed – when people have more money, they want more meat, fish, dairy, and processed food . In some places, food production is using up too many natural resources. In order to make sure that the world gets enough food, it is important to make sure that the food we produce is farmed, raised, or fished sustainably, so that food stocks will not be depleted. Sustainable foods are ones that have been produced in such a way that use up resources at a rate that is slow enough that the Earth can continue to replace them.
The problem of sustainable food production needs to be treated systemically with new policies and industry practices, but there are things that the individual food consumer can do to eat a diet based on more sustainably produced foods.
Chickens and Cattle and Antibiotics – Oh, My!
Most animals that we end up eating are fed antibiotics for most of their lives. In fact, three times more antibiotics are used for livestock than for people . These are thought to prevent animals from getting sick, and make them grow faster; however, antibiotic use in animals has been linked to antibiotic resistance in humans . Buying antibiotic-free meat can help combat this.
Buying free-range meat may be a good environmental solution, too, as livestock that are allowed to graze require less water than do animals that are grown in an industrial context, and grazing cows produce less methane, a greenhouse gas . Additionally, grass-fed meat may actually be better for you: it contains higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids .
The Rising Popularity and Dwindling Supply of Fish
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a popular documentary about an octogenarian, Michelin star-winning sushi chef. In it, Jiro Ono discusses the changes he’s seen in the availability and quality of fish over the decades that he’s been in the business:
The bad news first: nearly a third of the world’s fisheries are overused or depleted . When a certain species is fished too much, the population may collapse – meaning that the number of that species able to be fished has declined by at least 90%. Fishery collapses are increasing over time, and fish populations can’t always recover ; it has been estimated that if fishing continues at current levels, fisheries around the globe could collapse by 2050 . Populations can better recover from overfishing when a greater number of species are present because fisheries can switch from catching one species to catching another . The good news is that recent increases in awareness and changes in policy have led to more fisheries operating sustainably or at least are not exploiting the populations so much, leading to some recovery of fish stocks . Also, some organizations are trying to make the fishing industry more transparent: Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Watch program that helps consumers choose seafood based on sustainability practices surrounding different types of fish – they even have pocket guides and smartphone apps! Greenpeace also ranks grocery retailers based on whether their seafood policies are sustainable (Whole Foods tops the list). These and other resources help consumers make decisions that are better for the environment.
Unfortunately, even if you try to do your best to buy sustainable seafood, you may not even know what you’re buying – a study released last year found that a third of seafood being sold in the United States may be mislabeled . Snapper was the most commonly mislabeled – 87% of the time, it was actually a different type of white fish !
One Easy Solution: Eat More Produce!
It costs more energy and uses up more land and water to produce meat products than it does to produce plant-based food. About a third of the planet’s crops go to feed livestock , and the crops that are used to feed livestock just in the U.S. alone are enough to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet ! (By the way, around 842 million people around the world suffer from hunger ). Additionally, animals produce a lot of methane, which is damaging to the atmosphere . The EPA estimates that livestock produce around 28% of human-caused methane emissions . While meat is an important source of nutrients for people living in developing nations, the majority of people in developed nations eat more meat than they need to. An increasingly popular food movement in this country is Meatless Monday, where people adopt a vegetarian diet one day a week in order to increase both their own health and the health of the planet.
There remains some fear among consumers surrounding genetically modified organisms, yet this is a great solution for sustainable food production. Genetically modified crops can be designed to grow more efficiently in difficult areas. For example, crops can be engineered to withstand drought or dodge disease. Additionally, crops used to feed animals can be modified so that the animals produce more meat and less methane .
Knowing what to eat and where to buy it can be difficult, but decisions can improve both your own health as well as the health of the planet. Use this Earth Day to start becoming more informed about how your diet influences your world!
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- Food ark: Siebert, Charles. Food Ark. National Geographic July 2011. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/07/food-ark/siebert-text
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- Weise, Elizabeth. FDA Targets Antibiotics in Meat. USA Today, 11 December 2013. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/11/fda-antibiotics-meat/3987799/
- Will, Oscar H. Yet More Proof that Grass-Fed Meat is Better. Mother Earth News June/July 2011. http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/grass-fed-meat-zmgz11zrog.aspx#axzz2zetJs7Tf
- FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2010). http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i1820e/i1820e00.htm
- Save Our Seas Foundation. http://saveourseas.com/threats/overfishing
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- Hunger: http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats
- EPA: http://www.epa.gov/rlep/faq.html