Food that is grown using sustainable farming methods, is also the healthiest to eat. Sustainable farming practices nurture the health and vitality of our natural resources and the environment while reaping the whole, nutrient rich foods it produces. When our environment and natural resources are abused in the production of food, not only is the health of the soil depleted, the air and water polluted, the natural diversity of species degraded, and massive amounts of energy used in the growth, processing, and delivery of the final product – contributing to global climate change, but the health of the food itself is damaged – sometimes so much so that not only is it reduced in the nutrients our bodies need, but is actually dangerous to consume.
Sustainable farming does not employ the massive use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth and other hormones or antibiotics – they aren’t needed when we work in harmony and balance with nature to grow our food. You can have an impact on how food is grown, but making a conscious choice to buy locally and sustainably produced food. Buying local also supports the local economy and helps to keep our family farms in business.
For a great overview of sustainable agriculture – what it is and how it’s done, check out:
Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction, developed by The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.
So, what can you do to support the continued availability of healthy foods and the health of the environment? Here are 3 things you can do for your health, the health of your family, and that of the environment:
1. Eat less meat, and choose grass fed.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock is “responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions” (Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options), and is resource intensive – especially water. For example, “growing 1kg of potatoes requires only 100 litres of water, whereas 1 kg of beef requires 13,000 litres” (World Water Council).
Choosing grass fed beef can help to minimize this environmental impact, and it is nutritionally healthier to eat. Pastures on which grass fed animals are raised require less maintenance, energy, pesticides, and water than the feed crops on which CAFOs rely, and the animals are much healthier – resulting in a more nutrient rich, healthy food product. Grass-fed beef and dairy have less total fat, higher levels of “good fats” including omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, which is thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks (Mayo Clinic), than beef and milk from animals fed a grain diet like that in CAFOs.
From the Union of Concerned Scientists – other environmental benefits of choosing grass-fed over grain-fed animals include:
- Manure is produced in amounts suitable to fertilize the land, unlike CAFOs that produce unmanageable mountains of waste.
- With less waste, there is improved air and water quality and reduced fish kills when compared with CAFOs that pollute waterways.
- Healthier waterways allow for restoration of wildlife habitats, which support a diverse number of wild animal species.
- Healthy pastures decrease soil erosion and capture heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming.
- With lower transportation costs for feed, there is decreased fuel use, which results in a reduction in heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming.
- Since grass-fed animals are healthy, antibiotics are rarely needed, helping to keep medically important antibiotics working for people and animals.
2. Buy local as much as possible.
Buying local not only supports the local economy and the survival of sustainable farming practices, but the food is healthier, tastes better, and has less of an environmental impact than food products that must be shipped hundreds of miles to the local grocery store.
A Leopold Center report showed that locally grown produce traveled an average of 56 miles from farm to point of sale (compared to the average distance our food typically travels – 1,494 miles). And unlike food that has to be picked before it is ripe and then treated with harmful chemicals to prevent it from spoiling during the long trip over those 1,494 miles – local produce can be picked when it is at it’s peak readiness – full of flavor and nutrients, and minus the spoilage-prevention chemicals and/or chemicals used to speed up ripening when crops are harvested too early.
3. Certifications: Eat organic when possible
Organic food is produced without use of synthetic chemicals (unless they are on a list of approved treatments), genetically engineered materials, sewage sludge or irradiation. Animals must be fed 100% certified organic feed, and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics in order to obtain the “organic” certification.
Many pesticides are toxic to health, and have been linked to respiratory problems, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, cancer, increased risk of birth defects, and human reproductive problems. Children are especially vulnerable to the impact of these poisons.
By buying products that have received “organic” certification – you can know that your food has been grown and produced according to a very specific set of standards. The USDA Organic certification: Prohibits the use of hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, radiation, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic livestock operations must be pasture-based systems, where animals are not confined and are actively grazing on pasture for at least 120 days of the grazing season.
It is sometimes difficult to find organic certified products, but by buying local and choosing sustainably produced foods, the health and nutrient value of the product will be higher, and the impact on the environment much less than if you rely on food items originating from giant agribusiness corporations or CAFOs (regardless of where they are located.)