Beyond nutrition: what you need to know about food

saladYou have to eat.

For you to be healthy, your food has to be nutritious. And, of course, you want it to taste good.

But if you’re reading this post, you also want to take care of the environment. So you have to think about more than just nutrition and taste.

Unless you have your own garden, your food takes the scenic route between the field and your kitchen. What happens to it along the way matters.

How is your food grown?

farmWe live in an urban society, where the few people grow food for the many. It’s easy to forget that food doesn’t come from the grocery store or a restaurant.

Do you realize that some American young people have never seen a farm? Or if they have, didn’t recognize what it wat?

Food comes from the earth. Farmers grow crops and raise livestock. Commercial fishers catch seafood.

The “green revolution” of the mid-20th century greatly increased the world’s food supply. The world’s population tripled between 1900 and 2000, but world hunger decreased. Never in history have so few people struggled to feed themselves.

The new high yield plants need more fertilizer. Not necessarily more petrochemical fertilizer, but that’s what conventional farming now uses. More fertilizer applied to less land has polluted streams.

What we now call conventional farming also requires more energy than organic farming. But organic farming yields less food per acre and therefore requires more land. Conventional farming can overuse chemical pesticides. Organic farming can overuse organic pesticides, which aren’t any healthier for humans.

From farm to market

grocery cartYour food probably travels more than you do.

Whenever you buy something out of season where you live—or doesn’t grow there at all—it’s shipped from somewhere else in the world.

Maybe it is anyway. Norway ships cod caught off its coast to China for processing. China ships the fillets back to Norway. Some countries export certain foods, and then import similar quantities of the same foods.

Think of the fuel importing and exporting food requires! Even locally grown food moves from the field to a warehouse, then to a store, then to your home.

And that’s assuming unprocessed meat and produce. We buy food in cans, boxes, and plastic bags. Or in the case of chips, lightweight bags made of multiple thin layers of different plastics and metals. They can’t be recycled.

Stores offer bags of salad—chopped and prewashed mixed greens. They’re very convenient until someone somewhere along the line gets careless and contaminates the food with bad bacteria.

Food poisoning outbreaks make national news. Most of the salad on the shelves is wholesome, but the contamination could come from any of dozens of farms or processing plants. So we have to throw out the good with the bad to keep everyone safe.

Environmental problems from farm to market therefore include transportation, packaging, food safety, and food waste.

From market to the plate

mashed sweet potatoesMost of us have little control or influence over how food is grown, packaged, and shipped. We can decide what to buy and how to buy it.

Americans value convenience. Convenience comes with costs we ought to keep in mind.

Packaged food and restaurant food save us from spending time and effort to cook. It also has too much salt and uses too much packaging.

So cook. You can have a wide variety of meals ready to serve in half an hour. You can prepare others in a slow cooker with even less preparation time.

Cook more than you’ll eat at one sitting. Reheating the leftovers is just as convenient as prepared meals.

The convenience of single-serving foods likewise adds to our plastic consumption. And we don’t do a good job of properly disposing of it. We probably can’t avoid single-use products or packages entirely, but we can cut back.

We can also eliminate a lot of packaging by buying in bulk. I don’t mean buying large packages of something at Costco. I mean buying things like nuts, cereal, flour, or grains from bins.

You can find bulk bins in many supermarkets. You can also find them at neighborhood health food shops and co-ops. The stores will provide plastic bags or containers.

Many of them, however, allow you to take your own container to the store. Save up some glass jars. Have the store weigh and mark them before you fill them. When you use up that food, wash the jar and fill it with something else.

Finally, to cut down on food waste, don’t buy more perishables than you can eat before they spoil. And eat your leftovers before they spoil. You can have nutrition, taste, and be good to the planet, too.

Bring your own containers: Low- and zero-waste food stores try to go green / Lois Abraham, CTV News. January 26, 2017
Environmental cost of shipping groceries around the world / Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times. April 26, 2008
Good product, bad package: top sustainable packaging mistakes / Amy Wu, The Guardian. July 18, 2014

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