The link between the health of the planet and the health of our bodies shows up over and over again. Smog from cars hurts the ozone layer; breathing it in harms our lungs. Water pollution destroys ecosystems; we need clean drinking water to live. And the connection — between our health and the earth’s health — is glaringly obvious in the case of food production and consumption.
According to Aaron Huertas, a spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a person’s food choices is one of the top three ways he or she contributes to pollution. It shares that category with the miles that a person drives and the amount of electricity he or she uses. “A lot of students don’t drive a car, and if they live in a dorm they don’t have tons of control over the amount of electricity they use,” Huertas said. “So, the environmental impact of what they eat is the largest factor to their contribution to pollution.”
What can you do to make your dinner more earth-friendly? Experts agree these five options make the most difference:
1) Swap Steak for Salad.
According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, raising cattle causes more greenhouse gases than driving cars. Livestock generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, mostly from manure, which is almost 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Clearing forests to create new pastures is a huge contributor to deforestation. The report names the livestock business as one of the most damaging to the planet’s water resources. According to numbers published in a book from UCS, a pound of poultry contributes more than 11 times as much to common water pollution than a pound of pasta. These are facts I like to regurgitate when people ask why I’m a vegetarian. But, you don’t have to give up meat to make a difference. Try eating one vegetarian meal a day or going veggie a few days a week.
2) Go Local.
Fifteen-hundred miles. That’s how far the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates the average piece of produce travels between the vine and your plate. “That’s a lot of carbon, a lot of refrigeration, and a lot of money being wasted,” says NRDC spokesperson Courtney Hamilton. The NRDC has a feature on their website that tells you what food is in season within a two-week period in your state. There are four more Saturdays left this year for you to check out Evanston’s Farmer’s Market (on University Place and Oak Avenue). When grocery shopping, keep your eyes out for signs that say “locally grown.”
3) Choose Organic.
Yes, it’s more expensive. No, most college students can’t eat an entirely organic diet. But even eating some organic foods some of the time can make a difference to the planet and your health. For foods like strawberries, where pesticides get absorbed right into the fruit, choose the organic option. Organic farming doesn’t use synthetic pesticides which get into our soil, water and air. For produce, a good rule is to skip organic when the food comes in a peel you don’t eat, like a banana. “Organic farming is the way people have farmed for thousands of years,” says environmental scientist Craig Minowa, from the Organic Consumers Association. “It’s long term. If you want the same land to be bearing food to our children and our children’s children, industrial agriculture just won’t work.” When you’re shopping for food, look for the USDA Organic Seal.
4) Pass on Packaging.
Those 100 Calorie packs might be cute and handy, but they generate a lot more waste than buying one normal sized box of cookies. And the normal sized box of cookies generates a lot more waste than a bag of apples. Thirty-two percent of all municipal waste is from packaging, and one dollar of every 11 spent on groceries goes to pay for packaging. If you’re going to buy packaged food, buy it in bulk to reduce the packaging waste, advises Hamilton.
5) Eat In.
In your apartment, in the dining hall, in the restaurant. It’s all better than take-out. Although eating out isn’t better for the environment than cooking, all options are better than takeout, because takeout containers generate extra, unnecessary waste. If the containers are styrofoam or another material that doesn’t biodegrade, which they often are, then the containers will just stick around, polluting the environment further. And when you’re in the dining hall, says Huertas, bring a reusable container for your leftovers so you don’t waste food. (But shhh, don’t tell dining services.)