The term “ethical foods” can sound a little bit intimidating to the untrained ear. Some might immediately link the term with the vegan or plant-based diets and believe they must make a drastic lifestyle change, but in reality all diets have ethical options available to them. For the most part, foods produced by ethical means typically take less of a toll on the planet’s natural resources. They are generally healthier, more natural, and use production methods that are more equitable to workers and compassionate to animals. All ranges of the food spectrum from seeds to meats can be sourced ethically, and the choice is right at your fingertips. When it comes to embarking on your ethical food journey, take baby steps and go at your own gradual pace.
For example, consider the good old fashioned hamburger. Did you know that it takes 660 gallons of water to create one 1/3-pound burger? That’s a total of 8 baths! Now, I’m not suggesting to pass up burgers (or baths) forever, but perhaps if you’re someone who eats meat burgers every week, you can cut down to once a month or switch to a more sustainable protein choice like turkey or maybe give the wildly popular impossible burger a shot.
The choices are many, and to help you, let’s break down the 5 main food groups, their impact on our planet and tips to look for next time you go to the grocery store:
PLANT AGRICULTURE: It’s no mystery that fruits and vegetables are incredibly healthy and essential to every diet. A plant-based diet reduces your risk of heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, diabetes and cognitive decline. When it comes to selecting fruits and vegetables, it is always best to shop for organic, non-GMO options versus conventional produce. Some people argue that organic food is more expensive, but in reality you’re paying the price for better-quality nourishment. Non-organic foods contain pesticides and chemicals that lead to a nasty array of health issues that will cost more down the line in medical bills. These pesticides are not only damaging to our bodies, but they pollute the soil and the surrounding environment and have detrimental effects on the workers who tend to these crops. Not all vegetables are created equal, the truth is that organic produce contains higher levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidant values than their non-organic counterparts. A plant-based diet does more than just benefit our bodies. Substituting some of our animal products with plant-based choices also benefits the environment. A study by Mayo Clinic proves that organic farming practices help to keep the soil healthy, while also aiding water preservation and reduction of waste and pollution. Another study shows that plant-based agriculture uses 115 million acres less land than is needed for animal agriculture. While not everyone is comfortable giving up animal protein, increasing levels of plant-produce in all of your meals is a great, healthy way to nourish your body and help the environment.
ANIMAL AGRICULTURE: Animal agriculture has a large stake on the well being of our planet. Water, land and energy are consumed in high amounts to facilitate the cultivation of animal protein. Studies show that 70 billion animals are raised each year for consumption. To accommodate this demand, animal agriculture takes up 1/3 of the planet’s ice-free land surface, as well as nearly 16% of global freshwater and claims 18% of total green house gas emissions. On top of this, 1/3 of the world’s grain production is used to feed livestock. Other studies show that the average American diet consisting of beef consumption creates 1,984 pounds of CO2 emissions annually. Scientists claim that reducing our consumption of animal protein, mainly cattle, could reduce these figures by 96%. When shopping for animal produce it is best to shop local and pasture-raised or cage-free. Smaller farms tend to adhere to ethical norms of raising their livestock which in turn have less of an impact on the surrounding environment and provide a healthier, more comfortable life for the animals. Livestock raised industrially tend to face harsh physical abuse, unnatural living conditions and are injected with added hormones that can be harmful to consumers. If you want to reduce your consumption of animal protein, try making weekly vegetarian meals by turning your favorite meat dish into a vegetarian option. Did someone say veggie burger?
SEAFOOD: For centuries humans have relied on seafood for nourishment as they are rich in omega-3 fats and lean protein. Decades ago the oceans and rivers supplied a vast amount of fish for consumption, but industrialized fishing has brought some animal species and their habitats to near extinction. Studies show that the commercial industry is responsible for catching 93.3 million tonnes of wild fish and for cultivating 48.1 million tonnes of farmed fish annually. Research shows that if the fishing industry continues at this rate, wild-caught seafood will be extinct by 2048. Over fishing isn’t the only negative factor, the practices utilized to capture fish tend to cause excess harm to the ocean’s ecosystem as well. Bottom trawling, a technique that consists of dragging a net across the ocean floor, is responsible for 95% of global ocean damage. Blast fishing is also detrimental to the ocean as it utilizes explosives to kill large quantities of fish in a short amount of time. While fish farming has been utilized as a more recent tool to support the global demand for seafood, they, too, have a negative impact on the environment and surrounding wild fish populations. Fish raised in farms consume feed that often times consists of ingredients from wild-caught fish products, and are more likely to carry and spread diseases. The state of the oceans in recent times has made it difficult for sea life to thrive, yet there are still healthy options to choose from. When possible, aim to purchase local-caught seafood as small scale operations tend to have less of a harmful impact on the environment. Don’t live near a coast line? No worries – look for troll or line-caught wild Albacore tuna, wild Alaskan salmon or wild sardines from the Pacific. If you want to try farmed fish, oysters and rainbow trout are some healthy options.
DAIRY: Dairy products are a house hold staple feeding an estimated 6 billion people worldwide. While milk consumption has decreased in the US, cheese consumption has increased by 30%. Each year, approximately 270 million dairy cows are raised to supply the growing demand for dairy products.This demand brings harmful consequences for the environment. Manure that is improperly managed releases greenhouse gases, pollutes water and air, and negatively impacts wildlife habitats. An alarming 144 gallons of water is used to produce 1 gallon of milk, most of that water being used to grow feed for the cattle, and 9% of the US’s available cropland is used to feed dairy cows. While these numbers can seem intimidating, there’s a plethora of ethical options to satisfy your dairy needs. In recent years alternative milks have driven the dairy industry to near extinction and alternative cheese and yogurt options are following suit. Give goat or sheep cheese a sample if you’re not into alternative vegan milk, cheese or yogurt. Goat and sheep products have a higher nutritional value than those derived from cows, and their maintenance has less of an impact on the environment being that they are smaller, foraging animals that require less resources. As with animal protein, it is advisable to consume cheese and milk produced in smaller farms where the quality is often better, the animals are treated with care and have been allowed to lead healthier lives than those raised in industrial settings.
EGGS: Due to their high quantity of protein and their low cost, chicken eggs are a widely popular food consumed worldwide. Animal rights advocates have a pulled focused on the egg industry in recent years and their work has had a positive impact. While the number of free-range farms increases, there are still a large quantity of farms continuing to use cages. Often times hens raised industrially face harsh treatment like debeaking, a highly painful procedure. Like the rest of animal agriculture, egg manufacturing poses a threat to the environment by releasing greenhouse gases and contaminating local water and soil. The main environmental obstacle comes in the feed that is used for the hens which mostly consist of corn and soybeans. However, eggs pose a significantly lower threat to the environment than the rest of the animal agriculture industry. Next time you go shopping for eggs, aim to get the pasture-raised, free-range, soy-free variety.
We are faced with food choices every day of our lives, and it is up to us to ensure that the food we consume is raised and harvested in an ethical manner. As a general rule, shop local whenever possible to help generate income for small farms, decrease transportation pollution and ensure the safety and fair treatment of animals. Living an ethical lifestyle takes patience and commitment. Find the choices that fit in with your lifestyle, and share its impact on your life with your community to encourage others to join the ethical food train. Together we can all take small steps towards progress and facilitate the betterment of our planet, the animals and each other. Buen provecho!
Photo by Daria Shevtsova