It's not enough that we just make healthy food choices for our families and ourselves. We must take into consideration our impact on the earth if we wish to see the perpetuation of our species and the preservation of countless more species in jeopardy. Period. Our food choices play a critical role in the health of the air, water and soil, and the diverse ecosystems dependent upon them. So what foods are the most sustainable, and are they making up a large portion of your diet?
Organically grown food is by far one of the most obvious choices in sustainability—it reduces the amount of pesticides and herbicides used on the plants and soil, which are incredibly damaging to the environment and to human health. But when thinking about the most sustainable choices, we must also consider the use of fresh water—a diminishing natural resource that is at the precipice of a scarcity level never before experienced in human history. Another consideration is to purchase locally grown foods to cut down on fossil fuels and packaging used in transport.
While raising livestock animals organically and in cage-free, small-scale bucolic farming situations are far better than the dominant factory farming model, the amount of water it takes to raise an animal for food is almost unthinkable: 18,000 gallons of fresh water for just 4 steaks! And that cow will produce 150 pounds of toxic waste each day, whether he or she is eating an organic diet or a highly processed genetically modified one. So the short answer is: animal products are far from the lowest impact food choices. But what are highly sustainable and low impact also happen to be loaded with nutrients (and flavor!):
Grasses such as wheat, barley, oats, rice and buckwheat use a minimal amount of water in production. Buckwheat is particularly drought resistant. Heirloom varieties are hardier than modern hybrids and can require less water and fewer pest defenses.
Beans and peas are nitrogen fixers, meaning they take inert gases from the environment and turn them into useful ammonium which enriches soil environments. Peas, lentils and peanuts (a legume!) can fix up to 285 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare and can reduce or completely eliminate the need for fossil fuel fertilizers. They're also immensely nutrient dense sources of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, proteins and fiber.
Leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach are loaded with vital nutritional requirements and grow incredibly fast in most climates, making them an excellent low-impact food for any season.
Pomegranates and olives are ancient tree fruits that can tolerate drought-like conditions while still producing highly nutritious, and immensely tasty foods.
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