Eating Right Can Save the World
The endless cascade of nutritional information—about localism, vegetarianism, veganism, organic food, the environmental impact of eating meat, poultry, or fish, and more—makes the simple goal of a healthy, sustainable diet seem hopelessly complex. We talked to scientists, chefs, and farmers to get the ultimate rundown on how you should fuel up.
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“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” That’s what the French lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who happened to have a deep love of gastronomy, wrote in 1825. A century later, a diet-hawking American nutritionist named Victor Lindlahr rendered it as: “You are what you eat.” I propose revising it further: Tell me what you eat and I will tell you how you impact the planet.
Most of us are aware that our food choices have environmental consequences. (Who hasn’t heard about the methane back draft from cows?) But when it comes to the specifics of why our decisions matter, we’re at a loss, bombarded with confusing choices in the grocery-store aisles about what to buy if we care about planetary health. Are organic fruits and vegetables really worth the higher prices, and are they better for the environment? If I’m a meat eater, should I opt for free-range, grass-fed beef? Is it OK to buy a pineapple flown in from Costa Rica, or should I eat only locally grown apples?
The science of food’s ecological footprint can be overwhelming, yet it’s important to understand it. For starters, in wealthy societies food consumption is estimated to account for 20 to 30 percent of the total footprint of a household. Feeding ourselves dominates our landscapes, using about half the ice-free land on earth. It sends us into the oceans, where we have fished nearly 90 percent of species to the brink or beyond. It affects all the planet’s natural systems, producing more than 30 percent of global greenhouse gases. Farming uses about 70 percent of our water and pollutes rivers with fertilizer and waste that in turn create vast coastal dead zones. The food on your plate touches everything.
“If you look at the heavy-hitter list of global-scale changes that are human induced, how we feed ourselves is invariably near the top,” says Peter Tyedmers, a professor at Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies (SRES) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who has been studying the world’s food systems for 15 years. “But the great thing about food is that we have choices, and we have the opportunity to effect change three times a day.”
So what does a sustainable diet actually look like? I’ve thought a lot about my food choices and became a vegan a few years ago, but I still don’t know all the answers. So I set out to find them.
I didn’t go hunting for a crazed notion of perfection. I was simply looking for an attainable way to eat—whether you’re a vegan, a vegetarian, or an omnivore. Here’s what I discovered.
Paleo Is Stupid
One of my first stops is with Tyedmers. On a surprisingly warm evening for September in Halifax, he and dozens of SRES students are gathered on the back deck of a modest clapboard house to celebrate the start of the term. The only strange thing is what I see on many plates: hamburgers.
Admittedly, chicken and veggie burgers are also available. But the fact that an environmental-studies cookout features beef—perhaps the most vilified of all foods in terms of planetary impact—reminds me of the deep tension that exists between the urgency of what we know and the inertia of how we live. We love our meat. And any conversation about food and sustainability has to start with it.
Before I arrived, Tyedmers pointed me to a few landmark studies, the results of which are hard to ignore. Eighty percent of the world’s agricultural lands are allocated to animals, either for pasture or to produce food for them. More than 20 percent of all water consumed is used to grow grain to feed livestock. A 2013 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization study estimated that livestock accounted for 15 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, about the same as the entire global transport sector. Other analyses, which argue that the UN estimate doesn’t adequately account for things like the CO2 produced by the respiration of tens of billions of farm animals, estimate that livestock might be responsible for up to 51 percent of global emissions. “Meat is heat,” environmentalists like to say.
The type of meat you eat matters, too. A 2011 life-cycle analysis by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, ranked the climate impact of various meats. Lamb was the worst offender: for every one kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) consumed, the EWG estimates that 86.6 pounds of greenhouse gases are produced. Beef was next, at 59.5 pounds of greenhouse gases. Then pork, at about 26.5 pounds. Chicken, at 15.4 pounds, is the most climate-efficient farmed meat.
Meat is equally disproportionate in its thirst for water. Beans and lentils require five gallons of water per gram of protein produced, chicken nine gallons, and beef 29.6.
Reductions in meat consumption can deliver outsize benefits to anyone trying to eat more sustainably. “The question isn’t beef or no beef,” says Tyedmers, who eats it about five times a year. “It’s the right quantities of it. There are grasslands on the planet that can support beef, but we need to focus on portions and frequency.”
The planetary implications of the protein-obsessed paleo diet produces an ire rarely seen in professors of the environment. “That’s an insane way to eat,” Tyedmers scoffs. “They should be clubbed.”
The average American currently packs away a staggering 185 pounds of meat a year, the equivalent of more than eight ounces a day. Yet the USDA’s 2010 dietary guidelines recommend just 3.7 ounces of meat per day—about a palm-size burger—which comes out to around 84 pounds per year. Eating the recommended amount would mean a 55 percent cut in meat consumption.
Here’s a sense of what the planet might reap in return. A 2015 study conducted by the journal Frontiers in Nutrition concluded that a diet that is vegetarian five days a week and includes meat just two days a week would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and water and land use by about 45 percent.
Does eating grass-fed, free-range meat let you off the hook? Not really, because meat takes a toll no matter how it’s raised. Studies actually show that a factory-farm animal emits fewer greenhouse gases than a free-range one, because it lives a shorter life. But Greg Fogel, a senior policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, points out that factory farms in the U.S. produce 13 times as much sewage as the entire human population and that environmental impact is about more than greenhouse gases. “The meat you do eat should be grass-fed meat from managed grazing operations,” he says. “Rotational grazing systems recycle manure as fertilizer, improve wildlife habitat, and enhance plant root systems, increasing soil quality, water infiltration and flood control, and carbon sequestration.”
Right about now you might be thinking, Mmmmm, bacon. You might also be thinking, If I don’t eat much meat, how will I get enough protein? Not to worry. “We don’t need nearly as much animal protein in our diets as we currently enjoy,” Tyedmers says.
He’s right. The average American should consume about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, which works out to 70 grams of protein a day for a man. Recommendations for athletes range from 98 grams of protein a day for a weekend warrior to as much as 176 grams for competitive endurance athletes.
These aren’t difficult targets to hit. In the U.S., even vegetarians get about 27 percent more protein than the recommended daily allowance. Omnivores really pack it in, eating 60 percent more protein than a body needs. The extra protein is simply excreted, which Tyedmers derisively refers to as “pissing sustainability away.” The planetary implications of the protein-obsessed paleo diet, in particular, produces an ire rarely seen in professors of the environment—or Canadians.
“That’s an insane way to eat,” Tyedmers scoffs. “They should be clubbed.”
Get Smart About Seafood
Tyedmers and I move on to the topic of seafood. He stands and starts rummaging through a box of old fishing gear he has accumulated over the years while studying fisheries. “When it comes to nitrogen and phosphorous, greenhouse gases, and other global-scale phenomena, absolutely most seafood is much better than most terrestrial animal production,” he says.
Any assessment of seafood sustainability has to involve a careful look at stock management and how much bycatch is involved in the fishing method. Sorting through all the data is hugely complicated. I wrote about sustainable seafood for this magazine in June 2015, and I recommended using the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app when considering what’s on offer at the fish counter or when dining out. The app uses a clear rating system to rank sustainability and does the hard work for you.
But Seafood Watch’s ratings don’t yet include climate impact, which adds up. Seafood caught by bottom trawling or from pots and traps, for example, burns a lot of diesel as the boats work back and forth over a fishing ground. (Bottom trawlers also tear up the seabed.) So if you’re a fan of trawled Norwegian lobster, sold as scampi, you’re tucking into a hard-shelled climate bomb that exceeds most beef in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions.
As it happens, the seafood with the smallest carbon footprint is frequently the seafood that’s best to eat if you’re looking to reduce pressure on wild fisheries. Mussels, the only animal protein I still eat, have more of a carbon “toeprint,” at one pound of greenhouse gases per pound of mussels. Clams and oysters are similar, and sardines are a climate-friendly superfood. Mackerel, herring, and anchovies are also relatively easy on the climate—if they aren’t caught by a trawler. If you can’t stand the smaller, oilier fishes, U.S.-caught Alaskan pollock, which comes from a reasonably managed fishery, has a modest climate impact, making it the real chicken of the sea.
Aquaculture, or fish farming, is equally method dependent. Aquaculture systems that don’t filter and recirculate the water, like net pens in the ocean, are on average comparable to poultry and pork in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions. Land-based recirculating aquaculture, with its climate-controlled facilities and electricity demands, can be more than twice as greenhouse-gas intensive as aquaculture that doesn’t recirculate. So catfish and tilapia farmed in ponds or net pens are more climate-friendly than the same fish from recirculating farms. How about consumer-favorite farmed salmon? According to EWG’s calculations, farmed salmon is comparable to pork’s somewhat hefty footprint.
Weighing all the nuances can make seafood selection a head-scratching process of trade-offs, even for an environmental-studies professor. “For every pound of Nova Scotia lobster I buy there was a pound of bait used, and that was mostly herring. And that herring was better food for me and would have fed more people,” Tyedmers tells me, noting that some lobster fisheries in the U.S. use three times as much bait. “Then you throw in the diesel fuel. Does that mean I don’t eat lobster? No, but I do it with consciousness and intent, and on a special occasion.”
Good advice. Or stick to mussels.
Vegans Aren’t Perfect, Either
Clearly, eating less meat has big environmental payoffs. But what about not eating it at all? I’d never crunched the numbers to find out how much more climate-friendly a plant-based diet really is. The results are telling.
For example, in the Frontiers in Nutrition study, researchers compared the greenhouse-gas, water, and land footprints of a balanced 2,000-calorie vegetarian diet, including eggs and dairy, with those of a balanced 2,000-calorie omnivore diet that included one serving of meat per day: a 5.3-ounce steak. The vegetarian diet reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by 63 percent and required 61 percent less land and 67 percent less water.
Another study, in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, also compared an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian one. It considered a broad array of environmental impacts beyond climate change and land use—including cancer rates, effect on the ozone layer, and waterway pollution—to produce a more complete model. It concluded that the vegetarian diet had just 64 percent of the environmental impact of the omnivore diet.
How much of a bump can you get from giving up eggs and dairy and going vegan? Big enough to take seriously. The 2015 Frontiers in Nutrition study, for example, estimated that a vegan menu has a climate footprint 31 percent smaller than the vegetarian menu and 74 percent smaller than the omnivore menu, and a land footprint 7 percent smaller than the vegetarian and 64 percent less than the omnivore. It also reduces water demand by 9 percent over the vegetarian and 70 percent over the omnivore.
Food author Mark Bittman doesn’t want conscientious eaters to feel it’s all or nothing. “I’m not a vegan,” he says. “I don’t think people need to be vegan. We could eat 90 percent less meat and be fine.”
Vegetarians and vegans shouldn’t feel too righteous or complacent, however. When we stop eating meat, we turn to other forms of protein like nuts, legumes, and grains, and these have an environmental footprint worth considering, too.
Take the increasingly popular and thirsty almond. It notoriously takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond, and we’re eating seven times as many now as we did in 1972. Drought-plagued California produces 99 percent of American almonds, so bingeing on almonds and almond milk can be a water-intensive approach to fueling your body. (Good alternatives include coconut and hemp milk.) Nuts in general are an especially water-intensive way to get protein, requiring more than six times the water needed to produce equivalent protein from black beans, lentils, and chickpeas.
Still, perspective is important. Almonds require less than half the water per calorie of beef, and livestock feed and grazing in California sucks up more than twice the water used by almond and pistachio growers. Other healthy nonanimal calories, from cereals, legumes, roots, fruits, and vegetables, require about one-fifth the water used to produce the same number of animal calories.
Plant-based protein choices also carry different environmental costs. Wheat accounts for one-fifth the greenhouse-gas emissions of water-thirsty rice per gram of protein. Legumes are even better, at one-quarter the emissions of wheat. Being thoughtful about protein alternatives yields even more environmental payoff. Lentils and chickpeas, for example, are better than soybeans at fixing nitrogen in the soil and help you avoid soy’s GMO issues. And quinoa is packed with protein and grows well in a variety of soils.
Another fast-growing category of plant-based protein is meat substitutes—or meat methadone, as I think of them—often made of pea and soy proteins. I have tried most of them and tend to think that you can cook better food by delving into cuisines like Indian and Thai, which offer delicious recipes based on vegetables. But for anyone who simply can’t get beyond a craving for something meat-like, substitutes that contain no animal products produce about one-third the greenhouse gases of poultry.
While it’s clear that eating a more vegetarian or vegan diet takes pressure off the planet’s resources, former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman doesn’t want conscientious eaters to feel it’s all or nothing. Bittman has long encouraged people to shift toward a more plant-based diet and is now partnered with a vegan-meal home-delivery service called the Purple Carrot.
“I’m not a vegan,” he says. “I don’t think people need to be vegan. I don’t think that many people will become vegan. We could eat 90 percent less meat and be fine.”
You Should Go Organic
I live with a wife who’s a carnivore and two kids who are vegetarian, but the biggest debate in my household is over whether to buy organic or conventional fruits and produce. Based on vague notions that organic is better for the environment and aversions to the idea of herbicide- and pesticide-coated food, I am willing to pay the higher price for organic. My wife, Ilana, isn’t.
To find out if my organic preferences are worth it, I head to southern Pennsylvania, to the rolling 333-acre farmlands of the Rodale Institute, home to the longest-running side-by-side, organic-versus-conventional-farming trial in the U.S., to meet with Kristine Nichols, a soil microbiologist and Rodale’s chief scientist.
Organic farming, Nichols tells me, is really about the health of the soil and the ecosystems producing our food. Nichols wants to show me the difference between soil from conventional agriculture, which uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and soil from what Rodale calls regenerative organic agriculture, which uses natural pest management, extensive cover crops, and natural fertilizer like manure.
Nichols is wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and her brown hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail. She ushers me into a nondescript cinderblock shed, where the air is pungent with the smell of dirt. Nichols rummages through a pile of clear three-foot-long tubes containing core samples from Rodale’s farming-systems trial, and she arranges two of them—one organic, the other conventional—next to one another. The tops of the tubes, where the soil comes from the surface, are dark and chocolatey in color. This is the topsoil, Nichols explains, the prime growing layer known to scientists and farmers as the A horizon. She points out that the A horizon in the organic soil extends significantly deeper than in the conventional-soil sample, adding that there is more earthworm and other biologic activity throughout most of the organic-soil tube.
It takes the planet about 1,000 years to build an inch of topsoil. Rodale’s organic methods are changing that equation. “The soil’s got more microbial activity, and we’re getting organic matter deeper down into it,” Nichols says. “We’re building our A horizon. We grew three inches in 35 years.”
This is an important achievement, given that an estimated 90 percent of U.S. cropland loses soil at a rate 13 times what’s sustainable. “Feed the soil, not the plant,” organic farmers like to say. Apparently, it works.
Nichols then takes me out to the farming-systems trial to see late-summer conventional corn next to late-summer organic corn. For the conventional side of the trial, Rodale uses the most up-to-date techniques, which include GMO varieties and the same carefully calculated quantities of fertilizer and herbicide that commercial farmers use. Still, the conventional corn is not looking so good. The leaves are yellowish, and the plant has reddish blotches, signs of phosphorous and nitrogen deficiency. Heavy spring rains washed a lot of the fertilizer away, followed by a hot and dry August.
The organic corn just a few plots away looks greener and more vibrant. Instead of synthetic fertilizer, cover crops have been used to feed the soil with carbon and nutrients and act as a weed-deterring mulch layer. The richer soil, and the more active relationship between the corn plant and the A-horizon microbial world, helped the corn weather the dry summer better. And Rodale’s data shows that its organic corn yields 31 percent more in drought conditions than its conventionally grown corn, which is important in a climate-changing world.
Rodale’s organic growing methods deliver other environmental benefits. They use 45 percent less energy and produce 40 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than the conventional growing systems. Other studies confirm the good news. One concluded that an omnivore diet of organic meat and vegetables has an environmental footprint 41 percent smaller than that of a conventional omnivore diet, and an organic vegetarian or vegan diet gets roughly the same benefit. When you consider that the estimated environmental and health-care costs of pesticide use in the U.S. every year is in the billions, I start to feel pretty good about my side of the organic-versus-conventional marital debate.
Finding an abundance of organic options usually means shopping at a higher-end grocery store or a farmers’ market, or buying a CSA share from a farm that uses regenerative organic practices. Whole Foods is trying to make sustainably farmed products easier to identify by rolling out Responsibly Grown ratings of Good, Better, and Best for fruits, flowers, and vegetables. Products that meet the Certified Organic standard of the USDA are automatically granted a Good rating but have to meet additional criteria to move up the scale.
“Responsibly Grown is designed to give our shoppers more information about the products they’re buying,” says Liz Burkhart, a spokeswoman at Whole Foods. “This includes areas like water conservation, energy use, and farmworker welfare.”
As for the higher prices of organic, I deal with the premium by buying smaller quantities and cooking moderate portions, which is beneficial to my wallet and to my family’s calorie count.
While what you eat is important, how it gets to your plate matters, too. One morning before dawn, I head into an industrial zone of Capitol Heights, Maryland, where I find Zeke Zechiel overseeing the morning deliveries for Washington’s Green Grocer. Zechiel used to be a nightclub owner, but 21 years ago he and his wife, a chef, decided they wanted to offer their community a better way to buy quality produce. Washington’s Green Grocer delivers subscribers a weekly box of organic (or conventional) fruits and vegetables. I find it a convenient way to buy organic.
Zechiel is 51, wearing cargo shorts, a T-shirt, and Keen sandals. He tries to buy as much as he can from farms within a few hundred miles of him. I see lots of boxes from the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative in Pennsylvania. But I also see Mexican avocados, California brussels sprouts and cauliflower, and organic bananas imported from Central and South America.
“To sustain the company, there are certain things people want to have,” he says. “If we don’t have them, they won’t use us.”
Zechiel worries about the food miles required to give his subscribers the fruits and vegetables they expect. To address that concern, he launched a local-only box, which is now bought by about 20 percent of his 3,500 customers and is his fastest-growing offering. But he ruefully admits that he can’t make it both organic and local year-round, which he calls the holy grail, because it’s hard to get a wide selection of organic fruits from the wet, pest-prone mid-Atlantic region.
“If you want to eat local and organic year-round, you have to stock up and make jams and freeze or can stuff, which is an enormous effort,” he says. “It’s really hard to find someone so committed.”
Even his dedicated local-box customers often add on imported bananas. “People just gotta have their Saturday smoothies,” he says.
Food miles and the greenhouse-gas emissions they cause aren’t easy to understand. So much depends on the efficiency of the transport network. Anything flown in—say, fresh salmon from Alaska or cheese from Europe—arrives with a sizable climate footprint. But bananas or oranges packed tightly onto a container ship or a large truck do not. How do you compare a fully loaded semi driven cross-country from California with a local grower’s pickup truck that may have rolled only 100 miles to a farmers’ market with a few boxes in the bed?
Still, according to one analysis I found, buying local can reduce the impact of vegetable production by 10 to 30 percent. Other researchers have calculated that produce moving through the national transportation network that supplies large grocery stores travels an average of about 1,518 miles and emits five to seventeen times the greenhouse gases of regional and local food distribution. In contrast, locally sourced foods travel an average of just 45 miles.
So it makes sense to buy local whenever possible, another reason to spend time at the nearest farmers’ market. If you’re really dedicated to sustainable eating, that means eating seasonally as well. No more grapes and strawberries from Chile in February. I can only hope Zechiel will start selling local canned peaches to get me through winter.
You’re Throwing Away Too Much Food
No matter where you come down on meat, organic, and shopping locally, there are two powerful sustainability strategies you can put to work right now. The first is to eat less. If the average omnivore, who eats around 3,500 calories a day, instead ate a diet closer to his basic nutritional requirement of 2,500 calories, he would likely reduce his environmental footprint by about 30 percent. An active person who works out daily needs closer to 2,800 calories, yielding a roughly 20 percent cut.
The second strategy: waste less. In the U.S., 40 percent of food—worth an estimated $165 billion—is thrown out every year. It’s an environmental and social-policy tragedy. According to the USDA, which in September announced an initiative to try and cut American food waste in half, the average family of four trashes two million calories a year, worth nearly $1,500. As a result, 25 percent of America’s water is used to produce food that is never eaten, and an estimated 28 percent of the planet’s agricultural land is used to grow food that ends up in the garbage. Food is the single largest solid-waste component of America’s landfills—an estimated 80 billion pounds—and emissions from it are equivalent to the greenhouse-gas output of 33 million cars.
In the U.S., 40 percent of food—worth an estimated $165 billion—is thrown out every year. It’s an environmental tragedy. The average family of four trashes two million calories a year, worth nearly $1,500.
Wasting resource-intensive meat and seafood is particularly hard on the planet, yet consumers throw away an estimated 40 percent of the fresh and frozen fish they buy, 31 percent of the turkey, 25 percent of the pork, 16 percent of the beef, and 12 percent of the chicken. Peter Tyedmers says that consumer demand for fresh seafood leads to a lot of waste at the fish counter. There, if it isn’t sold by a certain date, it gets tossed.
“I have thrown out halibut steaks. They get lost in the fridge,” he says ruefully. “If you buy that halibut steak frozen, it just stays in the freezer.”
Restaurants and grocery stores are doing more to donate excess stock to food banks, and national food-service operators such as Aramark are discovering that innovations—like removing trays from cafeterias, which make it too easy to load up—can lead to dramatic reductions in waste. But how we personally shop and handle food at home is by far the biggest source of food waste, accounting for an estimated 47 percent. Restaurants are the next biggest, at 37 percent.
To combat this, I shop more often, buying for a day or two at a time instead of a week, so that less food gets lost in a packed refrigerator. I often ignore expiration dates, and I derive distinct pleasure from cooking up hashes, soups, and curries using all the leftovers I find on the edge of going bad. I have become the food-waste equivalent of the person who goes around turning everyone’s lights off. It can be annoying, but it works.
The Future Tastes Good
I know all this conjures an image of an enviro-scolding hippie living on lentils. But fear not: eating more sustainably can be delicious.
For reassurance, I check in with Dan Barber, a dynamo chef and a seriously deep food thinker. First at his restaurant Blue Hill in New York City, and then at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which he opened near Tarrytown, New York, in 2004, Barber has been on a quest to create a more sustainable menu and prove that it can be extraordinary. That led him to a profound appreciation for the natural productivity possible at his family’s 138-acre New England farm, called Blue Hill, using regenerative organic methods. Today the farm rotates and produces a variety of crops and vegetables and uses livestock like cows, chickens, and pigs to spread and work nutrients into the soil.
Barber sees eating and food production as a negotiation with the landscape. What can it reasonably provide? How does a chef make the best use of everything it offers? How can the foods we eat sustain and build its fertility? When he looked at his menus and his cooking through that lens, he realized that he needed to reinvent the architecture of the American plate. Instead of a massive chunk of animal protein at the center flanked by a few vegetables, Barber envisioned the reverse. Vegetables and legumes or grains would be the headliners at the center, and animal protein would be the judicious accompaniment. Imagine a carrot steak, Barber proposed, with a side of braised second cuts of beef. He calls this the “third plate,” which became the title of his excellent book about his journey. Diners and restaurant reviewers have been ecstatic.
“It’s not to say you can’t enjoy a steak, but we really need to think hard about meat,” Barber says. “You can take very small amounts of meat and get great satisfactory umami”—or savory flavor.
Sustainability is a little like religion: we’re all striving for an ideal, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve perfection. We sin a little here. We sin a little there. But a few simple adjustments help a lot.
It’s a hopeful vision, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up. Near the end of my visit in Halifax, Tyedmers and I eat lunch at Lion and Bright, an organic restaurant in the North End. I have an eggplant, tomato, and green onion curry wrap; Tyedmers orders the chili con carne. “I’m a sucker for good chili,” he sighs. I ask Tyedmers why, given how much he knows about the environmental impacts of meat, he continues to eat it.
“If every male on the planet ate the way I do, we would have less of a problem, but we would still have a problem,” he says. He pauses, then says that it doesn’t make sense to focus all your sustainability efforts on just one facet of life, like eating. What matters is the overall footprint of the choices you make. He tells me that when he got married, he was apprehensive about having children, because population is such an engine of environmental crisis. His wife wanted the experience of raising children. In the end, they settled on one child.
It’s a good point. Ilana and I have two children, and whatever choices I make with regard to the sustainability of my diet or lifestyle will likely pale next to that second child’s life of consumption. Tyedmers made a hard choice when it came to reproduction but still eats meat. I made a hard choice to stop eating meat but had two children. I can never regret having a beautiful second child in my life, but I have to confess that Tyedmers’s choices are probably of greater benefit to the planet than mine. I also consider the irony that I flew to Halifax to report a story on sustainability, the equivalent of eating roughly 40 pounds of steak.
Sustainability, it seems, is a little like religion: we’re all striving for an ideal, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve perfection. We sin a little here. We sin a little there. The omnivore who hunts for an elk each fall for his meat—or maybe even eats roadkill—and raises his own chickens for eggs, grows his own organic vegetables and fruit, and cans food for the winter is eating pretty damn sustainably. So is the backyard-gardening vegan. But that’s a degree of virtue many of us will never achieve.
Still, a few simple adjustments help a lot. Stop worrying so much about not getting enough protein, and remember that plant-based protein is a lot easier on the planet than animal protein. Buy organic food whenever you can. Source your food as locally as possible, and eat seasonally to avoid racking up major food miles. Eat less and waste less. Be open-minded and creative about new cuisines. Relax. Have fun. Sustainable eating isn’t synonymous with masochism.
“We think of everything related to the environment as something we are doing wrong or have to give up,” Dan Barber says. “But people can do something about it in a way that is pleasurable. We can actualize change through hedonism.”
Who can’t rally behind that?
Correspondent Tim Zimmermann wrote about sustainable seafood in June 2015.