There are three big factors that contribute to the sustainability of our individual and collective diets—and one or two of these often gets overlooked.
About a third of the food that we produce never gets eaten; it ends up in the landfill. And if you’re worried about the carbon footprint of your diet, consider this: If food waste were a country, it would be the #3 contributor of greenhouse gasses in the world, right behind the U.S. and China. And that’s on top of whatever greenhouse gases were released during the production and processing of that food.
Although plant foods require less energy to produce, they are wasted at a far greater rate. We consume about 80% of the meat and dairy that is produced, throwing about 20% away. But 50% of the fruits and vegetables and about 40% of the grain that we grow is wasted.
Food waste occurs at every step of food production and distribution—from the farm to the warehouse to the grocery store to our own kitchens. A lot of fresh wholesome produce ends up in the landfill because it’s not cosmetically perfect. A lot more is discarded because it is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and it’s cheaper to pay for it to be hauled to the landfill than it is to store it or transport it to where it can be sold.
Reducing food waste was the topic of podcast #258, where I offered lots of tips on reducing food waste and readers and listeners added lots more. Since then, I learned about a very cool start-up company called Hungry Harvest. Every week, these guys are diverting millions of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables destined for the landfill and delivering them instead to subscribers, who save a bundle and also contribute to reducing food waste. Companies like Hungry Harvest, industry efforts like the Food Waste Alliance, and volunteer initiatives like the student-led Food Recovery Network have the capacity to put a major dent in food waste and the greenhouse gasses it produces so let's support them however we can.
Sustainability Is a Three-Legged Stool
As you consider how you can contribute to a sustainable food system, I urge you to keep all three of these factors in mind:
1) If you get a large percentage of your calories from animal foods, consider shifting the balance to get more of your calories from plant foods. You don’t necessarily have to become a strict vegan in order to make a big difference.
2) If you consume a lot of highly-processed foods, consider shifting your choices to include more whole and minimally-processed foods. Not only will you be reducing the carbon footprint of your diet but you’ll probably be improving the nutritional quality as well. (And just because you’re a vegetarian doesn’t get you off the hook here. That organic hemp protein powder and those gluten-free frozen pizza rolls don't grow on trees.
3) Be on the lookout for ways to reduce food waste, whether that means bringing leftovers home from restaurants, keeping track of what’s in the fridge so that it doesn’t spoil, buying “ugly” produce, or volunteering for an organization that works to reduce food waste by redirecting surplus food to food banks and shelters.
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