Eating Environmentally? Everything You Think You Know Is (Probably) Wrong
From organic produce to grass-fed beef, it might be time to rethink some choices.
Photo: Keith Brofsky / Getty
If you're someone who tries to make food choices that reduce the impact on the environment-opting for organic produce, switching to grass-fed beef, choosing wild-caught fish over farmed, and swapping plastic bags for paper-you might be dismayed to read a recent in-depth, interactive report by the New York Times that shows many choices we think help the environment don't have that much of an impact-or even make things worse.
Take one of the basic tennets: Choosing organic produce over conventional, for example. While organic fruits and vegetables are grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, which does help the environment, organically grown produce isn't necessarily better for the climate. According to the New York Times, some organic produce can "be a bit worse" for climate change, since organic farms require more land than conventional farms. So simply choosing organic labels doesn't give you "great information on the food's carbon footprint."
Organic milk isn't always a smarter choice, either-at least environmentally. Organic milk comes from cows that haven't been treated with hormones or antibiotics, have spent at least 30 percent of their time grazing-and the rest of the time eating food that is synthetic fertilizer and pesticide free. "But there's no requirement that an organic dairy farm have a lower climate footprint than a conventional farm," the Times writes. "To date, studies have disagreed on whether organic dairy farms produce more, less or about the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as conventional farms do, per gallon of milk."
Another surpise? Grass-fed beef may not be better. Yes, it's true that grass-fed beef can be more sustainable. Since cattle actually help the grass to grow, the fields they eat help to offset some of their climate impact-but the bigger environmental concern with beef is the methane gas that cattle produce. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and cattle burping it out is a problem.
As the New York Times reports, "Grass-finished cattle … take longer to reach slaughter weight, which means they spend more time burping up methane into the atmosphere." Because of this, some studies have found that grass-fed beef can be worse for the climate.
When it comes to fish, the general rule has bee that wild-caught is more environmentally friendly than farmed, but that is also called into question. As the Times puts it, "Wild shrimp and lobster can have a larger [environmental] impact than chicken or pork, because pulling them in demands extra fuel for the fishing boats." Accounting for this means farmed salmon and scallops are a better environmental choice that wild-caught tuna.
(If you're looking for the best sustainable fish options, then this article can help you out.)
At least choosing to avoid plastic bags is clear, right? After all, there's a reason so many places have started to ban them: It can take a cool 1,000 years for a high-density polyethylene plastic bag to break down in the environment. But paper bags aren't much better. "Paper shopping bags appear to be a bit worse from an emissions standpoint than plastic bags," the New York Times writes. Other research supports this: Including the energy required to produce, store, and transport bags, simply reusing (and recycling) the plastic bags we have may be the better option.
Thankfully there is one unambiguously positive thing we can do to reduce our impact on the environment: Cut back on the amount of meat we eat. "A number of studies have concluded that people who currently eat a meat-heavy diet-including much of the population of the United States and Europe-could shrink their food-related footprint by one-third or more by moving to a vegetarian diet," the New York Times reports. Even just swapping one meat meal a week for a vegetarian-or better yet, vegan-choice could make a big impact.
That might be a big ask-but it will have a huge impact. And it can also be tasty, healthy, and fun. If you are ready to dip your toes into the vegetarian or vegan world, we've got some resources that can make it a lot easier for you: These healthy and easy vegetarian recipes and vegan recipes can get you started. And if you'd like to change up more than one meal a week, we've got plans for that: A 30-Day Vegetarian Diet Plan and a 7-Day Vegan Meal Plan.