Food sustainability was included for the first time ever in the recently released Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report. This report is updated every 5 years, and it provides the scientific basis for the next version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The report acknowledges the connection between food and how its production, processing, and disposal can impact both personal and planetary health.
Factors to consider in designing a sustainable diet include:
- Effect on health and longevity;
- Environmental Impact, including use of toxics, climate change and biodiversity;
- Fair trade practices and economic equity for farmers;
- Emphasis on local foods;
- Consideration of resources required to grow, preserve and distribute foods.
Effect on Health & Longevity
Diets emphasizing foods that are lower on the food chain (including vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds) contribute to longer, healthier lives. Plant foods with BIG color and STRONG flavor, especially those minimally processed, are particularly healthful choices. Usually, the longer the ingredient list and the more packaging, the less healthy the food.
Environmental Impact (Including Use of Toxics, Climate Change, & Biodiversity)
Again, the lower on the food chain – all other things being equal – the lower the greenhouse gas footprint and the lower the impact on the environment and biodiversity. And the same is true of organically grown foods. According to the USDA, the “meat lover” dietary pattern produces a third more carbon dioxide/person than the average American diet, while the vegan dietary pattern produces one-third less carbon dioxide/person.
Fair Trade, Equity for Farmers, & Supporting Local Agriculture
For every dollar we spend on food, only about 11 cents goes to the farmer on average. To help correct this inequity, here are some actions you can take:
- Buy fresh and local.
- Buy directly from the Farmer at Farmer’s Markets or join a Community supported agricultural program (CSA) – this can increase the farmers take to as much as 80% or more.
- Buy lower on the food chain – farmers growing veggies and fruits get a larger share of the food dollar.
- Buy certified fair trade goods.
And speaking of shopping locally, here are some great ideas for buying a week’s worth of groceries at the farmers’ market for $40.
Sustainability of Resources Required to Grow, Preserve and Distribute Foods
How food is grown has a major impact on how sustainable it is. Modern factory farms deplete soils; organically grown food creates soil. Monocultures require more pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and they are extremely fragile – being susceptible to disease, blight, and shifts in climate. For example the entire global production of bananas comes from one genetically identical hybrid and it is now threatened with a blight.
Water and energy intensity of foods follow the same rule – the lower on the food chain, the more sustainable. Vegetables require an average of 37 and fruit requires an average of 146 gallons of water per pound of food produced, while grains require an average of 282 and protein foods require an average of 504 gallons of water per pound of food produced (data extrapolated from Table 1).
So the “Bottom Line” is that the lower on the food chain you eat, the healthier it is for you and for the planet. And speaking of plant-based meals, try our Moroccan Stew with Sweet Potatoes in Peanut Sauce. This colorful and flavor-filled dish is loaded with fiber and plant protectors.