One of the absolute best ways to make the world a better place is by making ethical food choices. Every time you eat, you’re making a choice about the kind of world you want to live in–for most of us, that’s a least three votes a day! Instead of participating in a food system that poisons the water supply with pesticides, abuses animals, and releases massive amounts of emissions by transporting food around the globe, you can make a different choice. And yes, eating ethically might cost more, but consider this: while US-Americans spend just 10% on their income on food, the French and Italians spend 15%, and the Spanish, 17%.* People from Italy, France, and Spain are also healthier than US-Americans. Coincidence? Not likely. Economizing is probably best left to other areas of your life. So if you want to eat ethically (and healthily), here’s how:
1. Grow your own food.
The best way to eat ethically is to hunt, gather, and/or grow your own food. This can be a challenge when you live in an urban environment like I do, but I highly encourage it if you have the option! I have no outdoor space at all (not even a fire escape), but I do grow herbs on my windowsill. The first time (link) I tried to do this, it didn’t go so well, but it seems to be going better this time (so far). I often use fresh basil leaves on salads, pasta, or pizza; and my spearmint leaves are great in teas and cocktails! One day, I’d like to have a backyard garden where I can grow vegetables, and maybe even raise chickens, but for now I’m doing the best I can with the space I have!
2. Buy from the farmer’s market, or CSA.
I absolutely love going to the farmer’s market for fresh produce, eggs, and even meat. I am lucky enough to have a market that I can walk to from my apartment, but because it takes place on Wednesday mornings, I can’t make it every week. If you don’t have a local farmer’s market or if it’s not convenient for you, community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes are another great option. If you don’t know what these are, I wrote a couple posts about them that you can check out here and here. I used to get a biweekly CSA box, but I ended up canceling my subscription because the produce often came packaged in plastic and because I had no choice in which items I received, so I sometimes I got items that I didn’t want or couldn’t use (like beets—yuck!). One more related option which I’ve just recently discovered is Imperfect Produce. This is a company that sends you a box of produce that’s, well, imperfect. These are items that were rejected by grocery stores because they were the wrong size or had scratches on them, so they are sold to consumers at a discount in order to prevent food waste. They only operate in select cities (for now), but since I recently moved in range of their company, I had to try them out! Get $10 off your first box with this link.
3. Eat local.
Buy food that has been grown and/or produced as close to where it will be consumed as possible. Besides farmer’s markets and CSAs, local produce and other products can also be found at the grocery store. Favor these over ones that come from across the country or across the world. The farther food travels, the higher its carbon footprint and the less nutritious and tasty it is (because it’s not picked at peak freshness). You can also choose to eat at local restaurants, rather than chains. They are more likely to serve locally grown food, and supporting them means supporting your local community, rather than a corporation headquartered elsewhere. Eating local also ensures that you eat in season, which is likewise better for the environment and your health, because it contributes to a diverse diet.
4. Choose organic when possible.
“Organic” foods may still be grown by monocultures (farms that produce only a single crop, which is bad for the soil), transported from across the country, and packaged in plastic, BUT even industrial-scale organic products are generally better than their conventional counterparts. That said, we all know that “organic” generally means more expensive, so if 100% organic food is not in the budget, at least choose organic when it comes to the dirty dozen.
5. Buy package-free.
Buy the whole pineapple instead of the pre-cut one that comes in a plastic container. Buy grains, nuts, and seeds from bulk bins where available. And when packaging is unavoidable, buy cardboard/paper, glass, and metal before buying plastic. The former are more likely to be recycled and are less damaging to the environment.
6. Eat less meat.
Eating less meat is quite possibly the best thing you can do for the planet. The livestock industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined (source). It contributes to climate change, pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and ocean dead zones. It’s also bad for human health. Studies have found that the more meat you eat (especially red meat), the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer (source).
7. If/when you do eat meat, choose grass-fed.
To be honest, I didn’t fully understand the concept of “grass-fed” until I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. Basically, cows are meant to eat grass. But because of the excess of corn grown in the United States, it’s far cheaper and easier to feed them corn instead. Unfortunately, forcing cows to eat something that’s not naturally part of their diet makes them sick, and makes their meat less healthy for humans to eat. Since they are more prone to illness, cows at factory farms are given antibiotics, which pollute the water supply (via the cow’s manure) and contribute to antibiotic resistance. Although they eat more than grass, similar ethical and nutritional considerations can be applied to pigs and chickens. The bottom line is that it’s always better to eat animals that have been raised in their natural habitats. If you don’t have time to read Pollan’s book, this is a great article on the subject.
8. Plan meals to avoid food waste.
I love planning my meals in advance to ensure that all the food I buy gets eaten before it goes bad. (stat about food waste). By planning meals for the week ahead, I know exactly which ingredients I need to buy, and I don’t get suckered in to picking up items I don’t need (or at least not as often). If you do end up with leftover ingredients, Supercook is a great resource for finding something to make based on what you have left in the fridge.
9. Use the scraps.
Speaking of food waste, a lot of food gets thrown away simply because we don’t know what to do with it—think carrot greens and watermelon rinds. For a long time, I just assumed these scraps weren’t edible, but I was wrong. Lindsay Jean-Hard has a great book, called Cooking with Scraps, that’s filled with recipe ideas for those bits of food that usually get thrown out. Using the scraps is something I’ve been trying to get better at lately, and this book has been a huge help.
10. Compost the rest.
Food that can’t be eaten should be composted. It’s important to use all the food you can before turning to composting, but obviously we can’t digest pits and rinds. Composting releases carbon dioxide into the air, but this is far, far better than the methane that gets released when we send trash to the landfill. Plus if you have a garden, you can use the compost to put nutrients back into the soil and grow even more healthy vegetables. This is my dream, but as I mentioned, I’m not there yet. I used to bring my compost to a friend’s backyard compost pile, but since I moved, that’s no longer an option. I would like to subscribe to a company that collects the food scraps for you, but I think I will need to recruit some neighbors to join me in order to cover the monthly fee. At the moment, I’ve got a slowly growing stockpile of food scraps in the freezer, so I guess I’ll have to find a place to compost before the freezer gets full!
Do you consider yourself an ethical eater? Do you have any other tips for eating ethically? Let me know in the comments!
*I couldn’t find the original source for this statistic, but I got it from In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan.