Reducing the Environmental Impact of Your Food

Posted on April 19th, 2009 in Food by Michele Felder


Ever considered the impact your food choices have on the environment? Thought about how many chemicals, how much water, the carbon emissions caused to produce or transport a few tomatoes or a kilo of steak? Did you breeze past the organic fruit or the biscuits because they were more expensive, not realizing that a big piece of our environmental footprint is what we grow and eat?

It is an area that we can have more influence and control over than we think. In the book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, the author, Barbara Kingsolver, and her family spend a year eating only food from their own garden or grown in their local community. This required a fair amount of work, as well as adjustments to their diet to eat what was in season and available in farmer’s markets, or what they could raise on their own land (no bananas in Kentucky). Throughout the narrative, she also discusses topics such as genetically modified food, the impact of the corn and soybean industry on the U.S. food chain, the health benefits of eating organic vegetables, the decreasing variety of vegetables available to us, the meat industry and its tendency to focus on quantity rather than quality, and the increasing disconnection many people have from the joys of eating high-quality food. It is an engaging and ultimately optimistic discussion that made me think a lot more about the impact we have on the environment through our food choices.

And it caused me to start thinking about my own food habits. Thinking about how I have viewed food and made decisions with every visit to the supermarket. I was never one to buy organic food-it has always been much more expensive. The concern over GM food seemed over-hyped and a bit extreme. Frequenting farmer’s markets in the U.S. was about entertainment, not about locally-sourced alternatives to supermarket products. And yet, I am now beginning to realize that the choices I make about food can be as impactful from an environmental standpoint, as my decision to recycle or take public transport. Consider the following:

• Growing fruit, grain and vegetables in the modern way uses massive quantities of chemical pesticides and fertilizers – many of which find their way past the target fruit or vegetable and into our air, soil, animals, and water, contaminating them for generations. “When farmers apply fertilizer to fields, half (or more) of that fertilizer generally does not stay on the field to nourish crops, but rather is carried away in water and air to adjacent ecosystems where it can fundamentally change the way those ecosystems function.” (source: John Harrison, 2001, Stanford Univ.)
• Using pesticides and fertilizers reduces the ability of soil to re-generate itself; weakening the environment to be dependent on chemicals, requiring more and more to be used over time.
• Food (meat and vegetables) that is grown, processed, and consumed globally produce high carbon emissions when they are flown around the world or trucked across countries to their final destinations.
• Many species of fish are near extinction due to over-fishing. Tuna, marlin, shark, salmon and cod stocks have declined by more than 90% in the past 50 years. (source: Going Green in Hong Kong)
• One kilo of beef on your table requires 20,000 litres of water to be produced. This, while droughts and the availability of clean drinking water are becoming an environmental crisis in many parts of the globe. (source: Going Green in Hong Kong)
• Cattle, sheep, and goats (ruminant livestock) are a major producer (~14-20%) of methane gas- a green-house gas 23 times more powerful than CO2. One recent study estimated that one beef cow grazing in northern Australia can produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to around 1,500 kg of carbon per year. With more than 28 million head of beef cattle (not including the 3M dairy cattle, 85M sheep and 3M goats) in Australia-alone this is obviously a significant source of greenhouse gas.

What is also quite interesting to me is the linkage between what is good for the environment and what is good for us. Here are a few examples:
• Organically grown vegetables reduce the chemicals used in our environment and are generally accepted to have higher levels of nutrients than those grown in the modern, chemical-laden way. (source: Organic Trade Association, Medical News Today)
• Grass-fed cattle have been proven to produce less methane gas during their lifetime; and have lower levels of eColi bacteria, higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, and lower levels of saturated fats in the final beef product. (source: CSU Chico, 2007)
• Locally grown fruit and vegetables which produce lower carbon emissions in transportation, also have higher nutrient values because they get to your table sooner after being harvested. (source: UC Davis)

So, you may say, that is all well and good, but we live in Hong Kong. What can we do here when nearly all our food is imported from other countries?

First, satisfy yourself that you want to reduce your environmental impact by re-considering your food choices – you want to ‘vote’ with your diet. Once you have done that, it is much easier to see where you can make changes. Then choose a few areas to focus on. You don’t need to become an overnight vegetarian, eating only organic foods and tofu to have an impact. You can probably reduce the beef and meat you eat by a few servings a week without major feelings of sacrifice. At the same time, increase the vegetables and grains on your plate and feel healthier as a result. You have already started on the journey!

Here are a few more ideas of how to change your diet to positively impact the environment (and your health):
• Buy organically-labeled packaged products – breakfast cereals, biscuits, granola bars, pasta, oil, sauces, peanut butter, jam, tea, coffee. [Check that all the ingredients are certified organic.]
• Buy organic vegetables and fruit, they are increasingly available in major markets
• Buy locally grown food from the farmer’s market at Star Ferry on Sundays or at local organic grocers
• Buy free-range meat and eggs
• Choose fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for being sustainably caught or farmed, or select lobster, squid, anchovies, sardines, herrings and other small fish which are more sustainable and have lower levels of mercury.
• Buy organic yogurt, cheese, and milk
• Buy Fair Trade products (coffee, tea, muesli) – these are certified to be produced in an environmentally sustainable way, as well as guaranteeing a fair wage to the farmer.
• Ask stores, restaurants, recreation clubs, hotels, bakeries, where their products come from and whether they have organic or local options available (the more they hear this request, the more likely they are to start providing them)
• Reduce your consumption of meat overall
• Make your own bread (in a bread machine or by hand) using organic flours – no preservatives added!
• Educate yourself about organic food and labeling so you can be a more confident consumer, and also help your friends and family to understand their choices

Like any change in a habit we have built up over a lifetime, this one also requires adjustments and a new way of thinking. It may feel a bit inconvenient at first. You may wonder if it is worth the additional cost. But consider this, the environmental challenges we face are significant and immediate. We will not solve them with one action, by one person or one government, or with one new technology. We will only make progress by everyone doing their part, making adjustments, and living in a new way. In addition, your family can benefit from eating healthier foods and enjoying the food they eat even more!

One Response to 'Reducing the Environmental Impact of Your Food'

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  1. Kate Wade said,

    on April 21st, 2009 at 6:19 am

    Once again a great article Michelle! I think I could definitely start eating more locally grown food and I am super keen to try and grow my own veges now we have a garden. There is a market starting at the Star Ferry every Sunday- see Events section. Could be worth a look.

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