When I became a mom, I wanted to feed my kids nothing but organic and locally grown foods, figuring these foods were best for the planet and for the health of my growing kids. Later, when I came to question some of the hype around the organic, non-GMO and locavore movements, I was left with a nagging question: if non-GMO, organic, all-local diets aren’t the answer to our food system ills, then what is? What should we eat?
The answer is complicated, in part because it depends on what we’re measuring. What is best for our health? What is best for the environment? What is best for farm workers, food and produce packers? What’s best for livestock animals?
To complicate matters even further, sometimes these answers are in conflict. Scallops are one of the most sustainable sources of protein you can eat, for example, but in some cases they’re being harvested under oppressive labor conditions. Organophosphate pesticides are effective at controlling pests and probably aren’t harmful in the trace amounts we eat, but they might be causing harm to the children of farm workers and farming communities.
Beef makes excellent use of otherwise unusable land and food byproducts, but its production contributes to greenhouse gases and runoff pollution. And while it’s easy for me to talk about eating less meat, for farmers, the criticism feels personal because the farm is their family’s livelihood and, more than that, it’s often their family’s legacy.
Really, the most important takeaway from the ostensibly simple list that follows is that there are no simple answers. Agriculture, nutrition and food are complex interwoven subjects. And yet, we have to start the conversation somewhere. So here we go:
- Think regional not local. We’re often told to eat local, but the local offering may not always be the most sustainable one. For example, if you live in Florida, your closest source for sugar would probably be sugarcane farms in Florida, which happen to also be wreaking environmental havoc on the Everglades. Not only that, shifting agricultural production to a system of mostly small, local farms would actually be less efficient and take more of an environmental toll than a system in which large scale farms produce our high yielding crops. That’s why it’s much more meaningful to put our focus on regional efforts like organic cotton growers in Texas who, thanks to regional conditions, happen to need very few pesticides or the decrease in farming run-off achieved through a partnership of Chesapeake Bay large-scale farms and environmental organizations. The kinds of efforts that we can measure in a meaningful way tend to be seen at the regional, not local level.
- Eat more (farmed) bivalves. Oysters, scallops and other farmed bivalves are one of the most sustainable sources of protein on the planet because these foragers don’t require the kind of feed that carnivorous fish like salmon require, and they can be farmed with minimal ecological impact.
- Practice crop diversity on your plate. In the U.S., we grow a whole lot of corn and soybeans, most of it going to animal feed and ethanol. In order to get farmers to grow a wider variety of crops, including more fruits and vegetables or, perhaps more importantly, nutrient-dense crops like legumes, pulses and tubers, we consumers need to eat more of these foods on a regular basis. And we should be eating more oats too, as oats are not only nutritious but they’re also a great cover crop, which is important for soil health. One of my favorite recipes, from my friend Veronica, is to make black beans Panama-style, which just requires you to soak them overnight and then cover them with water and some onion and simmer away for hours. Click here for a similar recipe.
- Waste not, want not. While estimates may vary on exactly how much we waste every year, what we do know is that we can save money and minimize our footprint by striving to throw out less. Try non-browning Arctic and low-browning Opal apples to reduce the amount of apples left untouched on your kid’s plate, for example. Eat more frozen fruits and vegetables: it’s picked and frozen at the height of freshness and less likely to prematurely spoil. Fruit starting to turn? Turn it into an oat-topped fruit crisp or Saturday morning pancakes.
- Eat less meat. Though we’ve become more and more efficient at raising meat, it’s hard to ignore the many studies showing the environmental benefits of eating less meat. In fact, out of all the dietary choices we can make, eating less meat is probably the most impactful. If you don’t want to omit meat from your diet entirely, and many people do not, try flexitarianism with dishes like the blended burger that reduce meat by replacing some ground beef with mushrooms. I’m also fond of using as much of the animal as possible. It’s a great food waste buster, it’s delicious, and it helps save you money. Save bones for stock which you can use to make risotto, eco-modernist writer Marc Brazeau’s 13 Bean Conservation Chili, or next level tomato sauce (this last tip from my friend Trina, who inspires all of my cooking).
- If these tips just make you feel overwhelmed by the idea of making chili from scratch or hunting your grocery store for Arctic apples (come on, Arctic, we’d like to see some whole apples in stores!), find ways to do what works for you. For all of us who care about our food system, we need to recognize that locavorism and veganism aren’t feasible or desirable for everyone, so let’s offer people steps that they’re more likely to actually take. Maybe it’s just the occasional meatless Monday or oatmeal for breakfast. We need to move away from prescriptions like “buy only organic” or “no to factory farms,” because these are far too simplistic to ever be accurate or useful. It’s time to start digging just a little deeper into that cover-cropped soil. Hopefully we’ll find our way to the beginnings of a much richer, ongoing conversation.