In the last 50 years, the global marketplace has strongly focused on capitalist methods of production and the globalization of goods. So it is of no surprise that these influences have made their way into the agricultural marketplace in ways of intensive farming practices and the buying/transportation of food items across the globe. These two factors, coupled with the rising demand of food for all developed/developing nations, has put stress and demand on the environment like no other industry has.
Industrial farming contributes to global warming mainly through 3 greenhouse gases (GHGs): methane (CH4) (emitted mainly the degradation of manure & organic matter), nitrous oxide (N2O) (formed due to manure and urine by soil microbes and from its presence in chemical fertilizers) and carbon dioxide (CO2) (produced by the combustion of fossil fuels required for driving tractors, working of farm machineries, generating electricity and manufacturing of seeds & chemical fertilizers).
Given this, all foods in the current food system have a negative impact on the environment in some capacity or another just based on the production increases and global transportation expectations. However, we all need to eat – so what can we do?
There is a fine balance to navigating the food marketplace sustainably, but it certainly can be done. This can be dramatically impacted by what you eat, where the food was grown and what you did at the end of its life cycle.
What You Eat
Some foods have a lower impact on the environment then others. From a production standpoint, the sustainability of a food depends on a variety of factors. These factors are influenced from every point of the production process, including growing to packaging to distribution.
From a growing perspective, some foods are just naturally more resource intensive than others in facets of water use and maintenance. Reducing environmentally intensive foods (such as beef, dairy, lamb, chocolate, coffee, farmed fish, poultry, pork, olive oil) and increasing more sustainable foods (milk alternatives, peas, bananas, organic vegetables, nuts, onions, leafy greens, rice) is one way to dramatically reduce your carbon footprint.
Although the types of foods you choose can make a difference, packaging is another culprit that increases the unsustainability of foods. When navigating the grocery store shelves, try to go for the foods with less packaging or more “environmentally friendly” packaging (boxes, glass jars or aluminum cans vs. single use plastics).
Where Your Food Was Grown
Here in Ontario, we have the ability, for 6 months (or so) out of the year, to grow the majority of fruits and vegetables for the general consumers in Ontario. Even after the 6 month growing period, there is opportunity to jar, preserve or freeze local foods, so that they can be enjoyed all year long. There are also local animal husbandry farms that produce meat and dairy all year long.
Buying local agriculture or food products from Ontario or Canadian farmers directly supports farmers to enhance the local economy. Additionally, not only does it ‘support local,’ but it reduces the use of natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions. Buying local helps to reduce food travel and reduce food packaging, making it more sustainable than their well travelled, heavily packaged counterparts. There are many ways to access local foods, depending on your interest and commitment level. We will take you through a few programs that are currently offered in Ontario so that you can make informed spending choices on your next food buying trip.
Local food is available through a variety of avenues, and you do not need to extremely compromise or deviate from your regular shopping to add more Ontario grown produce to your regular shopping. While at the grocery store, looking for Foodland Ontario labelling, or checking country of origin in general, can help you navigate the produce aisle and choose what is best for you and your family. Of course, some produce and food products that have become a Canadian staple (such as bananas and avocados) will never be able to be grown here in Ontario or even Canada, and that is okay. You do not need to convert to all local food, all the time but buy local where you can and when you can. Making local food purchases where you can is still supporting the local economy and the local food movement, while still reducing natural resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions.
The afterlife of a product is something that should be taken into consideration when discussing the sustainability of differing food products. From an afterlife perspective, questions regarding composability and package recyclability are important. For example, how compostable is that food? How long does it take to break down in a landfill/composting facility/anaerobic digester? Is the packaging of that food garbage or recyclable? All valid questions when assessing the afterlife of food products. The more easily compostable or recyclable any product is, the more environmentally friendly it is.
Making sure all peelings & uneaten/wasted food go into the organics recycling stream is the most important factor when discussing food disposal. Food that ends up in the landfill takes up valuable landfill space and decomposes and releases uncaptured greenhouse gas emissions. By composting or sending food waste through the biogas process, nutrients that have been deleted from the earth can be properly restored through fertilizer application & gas capture through renewable natural gas creation.
Food is obviously an essential need for every living being and with our population continuing to grow, the ability to produce more and more food is vital to the continuation of life itself. To achieve this, consumers need to focus more on sustainable food choices, to reduce environmental impacts and give farmers the ability to produce food responsibly. If we continue down the global & capitalistic method of agricultural production, we risk food security and scarcity issues.
As mentioned just above, lots of factors can impact the sustainability of food, but it is important to assess the entire life cycle, rather then just making quick thoughtless purchases. Ask yourself, “where did this food come from?” “what type of packaging is this?” – this can be difficult at first, but like anything, becomes routine after the first few times. Of course, once you’ve utilized the food as needed, ensure all ‘waste’ is properly sorted & recycled. Of course, any packaging needs to be properly recycled or reused, and then all food waste, peeling or scraps should be put into the organics bin. Doing these steps will help to curb your environmental impact and reduce GHGs.