What to Eat When the Planet is Dying
Updated: Dec 2, 2019
Most of us are aware the Earth is in trouble, and not just from a warming climate. Our biological community is experiencing changing rainfall, eroding topsoil, burning forests, phosphorous depletion and extinction.
Diet is one intersection between personal choice and global consequence. Every time you order lunch, you make a decision which reverberates around the world. Given this, I’m going to take a risk and say something extremely unpopular: no one knows exactly what you, personally, should eat.
What? How can I say that? It’s all the rage now, telling people what to eat and what not to. The internet is absolutely full of dietary advice. The government and other bodies have advised us for years.* Everybody has that friend who is on a new diet and won’t shut up about it. There’s a continual avalanche of studies. Surely someone knows.
It’s true, some things can be pretty safely assumed at this point. More cattle production in Argentina is probably a bad idea; I think most of us can agree we’d rather not burn down all of the Amazon. Plus, cattle (and sheep and my beloved goats) are ruminants and therefore burp methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. According to How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee, eating a cheeseburger every day for a year amounts to a release of 2,000 pounds of carbon per year, “about the same as driving a fairly efficient car 1,500 miles.”
Our choices today aren’t just between an apple and a banana. They’re between wildly different systems of food production and distribution, with wildly different effects on our health and our environment. Berners-Lee notes that an apple picked from your garden may have effectively zero pollution (although there has to be at least a little bit, because in my experience if you don’t spray agricultural oil you ain’t gettin’ no apples, at least not in North Carolina).
A locally grown apple bought in season is also very low on the damage scale, but an average grocery store apple causes eight times as much in emissions, and one that is “shipped, cold-stored and inefficiently produced” causes fifteen. Even so, a burger is 250 times more, so you’re always better off eating an apple. Or even 249 of them.
Bananas has page after page of fascinating comparisons like this. It’s well worth a read, but see if you can find it at your local library; buying a paperback book is equivalent to about half a hamburger, carbon-wise. If you can’t borrow it, then think about buying it here. The commission I get on affiliate links pays for this site first, and then supports The Cool Effect. I don’t need to have any more impact than I do, so I’m sending cash earned here to carbon offset programs like this one.
My family eats a lot of apples, first because they taste awesome with homemade peanut butter, second because they help us meet our health goals, third because they’re cheap, and lastly because they’re a climate win. We have an orchard up the street that sells “seconds” (fruit with a little bit of damage) for eight bucks per half-bushel box. If I bought our family’s apples at the grocery store it would cost ten times as much. This is one of about a hundred examples where I’m very careful to keep doing the right thing by the atmosphere, because it saves me a boatload of money.
So, some broad conclusions are pretty easily reached: meat and processed foods are in general more pollution-intensive than local, seasonal veg and fruit. Whatever else may or may not be discovered about any one ingredient or superfood, and barring any allergies, it’s pretty safe to say you’re not going to harm yourself by eating more fruit and veg. You’re going to harm the world less, too.
But human beings are different, and we are only beginning to discover how different. In time, microbiome studies might reveal the ideal diet for each individual. But folks, I’m hungry now. I have to make a choice today. And there’s nothing more irritating than being lectured on the health benefits of vegetarianism by a friend who is both seriously overweight and coughing all over me, when I am at a healthy weight and hardly ever ill (true story).
Or being lectured about how eating animals is morally wrong by someone who is at that moment eating commercially produced wheat products (insect fragment tolerances, anyone?). I’m not going to tell you what to do, because I can’t know what works or doesn’t work for your body, and (at the risk of kinda sorta telling you what to do) I’m not sure you should tell people what to do either.
It’s true there are reams of dietary studies out there, and some of them are good. But you can’t take them seriously unless you check that they are good, that the data consists of something other than surveys (which can be highly unreliable), that the conclusions the authors come to are supported by the data. When the U.S. government issued its advice on fat, cholesterol and saturated fat in the 1980s, it used literally no evidence whatsoever to support that advice. Those low-fat, high-carbohydrate recommendations coincide with the beginning of the sharp rise of obesity and diabetes.
Articles on nutrition are often even worse than studies, because they usually are not reviewed at all except maybe by a magazine editor. When I was trying to treat my reproduction-related depression, I read about a thousand pages on fish oil. One article discussed two studies, one which supported health benefits and one which didn’t. The author concluded that fish oil was not worth taking because the science was inconclusive.
But when I looked through the methods of those two studies, I found that the one that supported benefits had used a dosage at least five times higher than the other. Did the author of that article even read the studies? Folks, do you get a different effect if you drink one cup of coffee than if you drink five?
This is why dietary advice is best taken with a carefully-rationed grain of salt: it might be supported by bad science, or it might be completely unsupported, and humans often let bias overwhelm them on subjects as emotional as food. You’ll never know unless you check, first by looking for scientific sources by using a tool like Google Scholar, then by reading those sources for yourself, making sure they found what they said they found. And even if it’s good advice for most people, it might not apply to you. You may have an unusual microbiome or a health complication like diabetes. It’s a little overwhelming, I know.
Don’t give up, because it really does matter. Author Daniel Quinn compared what’s happening to our ecosystems to a nice family living on the third floor of a brick building. Every day they go down to the first floor and knock out a few bricks (read: wild species), and take them up to the top to build a fourth floor. This seems fine, because the building continues to stand. But for how long?
I do not pretend that my family’s way of eating is the most ecological, although we think carefully about ecological issues when we decide what to eat. I also don’t pretend it’s the perfect healthy diet for everyone, or even for us.
We've had selenium and vitamin B issues. Since my husband and I got married eight years ago we brought two small children into the world, neither of whom is a great sleeper; in addition to the physical toll of pregnancy and nursing, we both missed a lot of sleep. Then we built a house, re-roofed a barn, and built a pole barn. We also took down four buildings (including two full-size houses) with sledge hammers and crow bars. Most of this work was in 90+ temperatures, and in addition to regular setting-up-a-homestead tasks like shoveling 30 truckloads of mulch and planting over a hundred trees. I would guess no diet is really adequate to that level of physical stress. It's probably partly due to a good diet that we're not a complete mess, after all that.
Our diet also isn't static; I’m always changing things up as I discover new information and learn to grow and cook new things. Apart from any other benefits, this brings us new favorites and keeps life interesting.
Home gardening plays a huge role in our diet. Any vegetable I grow is almost carbon-neutral, because we buy no fertilizer and no pesticides, we save some of our seed, and I preserve things by solar dehydration, solar canning, and a small amount of freezing. I was going to run the freezer anyway, and I hear they work more efficiently when they’re full.
My garden utilizes a sheet mulch technique. The cardboard came from boxes we used to move (some of them moved with us three or four times). The mulch was ancient manure out of our barn, and free wood chips from our local dump. The gas to get the wood chips to the farm in my truck has to count among the emissions for the garden, but it’s vanishingly small compared to the emissions of store-bought veg.
Of course we still buy a lot of our food as well, trying to aim mostly for things with few ingredients, and therefore less impact. We also eat out, although infrequently. All of these dietary choices were made primarily for reasons other than environmental impact: frugality, health, agency over our food source, and having fun things to do with the kids. Less pollution is a bonus.
The four of us in my family together eat about five pounds of meat a week, compared to the American average of fourteen for a family our size. Much of that is wild-caught, traded with friends, grown on our farm or bought from a local pastured farm. Here’s an advantage of eating less meat: you might be able to afford the really good stuff! We eat about three pounds of cheese, compared to the average two and a half. Seven pounds of animal product versus over seventeen is a huge savings to both the bank account and the environment. We’ve had different diets over the years which did not work as well for us.
That’s because we are not only our impact, we are also people, with tastes and fragilities and weak moments. Each good grassfed burger I make at home seems to save us at least two deprivation-emergency stops at fast food joints, which I think is worth it, both in terms of flavor and in terms of environmental impact. Because we have diabetes in the extended family, we are motivated to balance our carbs with protein, fiber and healthy fats that slow the absorption of sugar.
If you can’t or don’t want to eat grains and/or legumes, which form the basis of most “Earth friendly” diets, it doesn’t mean you can’t eat more ecologically. In my kitchen I use many techniques from Long Way on a Little by Shannon Hayes to utilize bones, pastured fats and organ meats that often go to waste even in the local foodie scene.
Living off what would otherwise be wasted is good for the planet because it doesn’t drive any new production, whether you’re wearing hand me down clothes or eating unpopular cuts of meat. This is quite the culinary adventure, and it might be nutritionally better than eating mostly muscle meat, too. Yes we eat liver in favorite recipes like this one, and yes, we like it.
My diet is far from the only way to do it, it’s just the way that works best for us after lots of tinkering, paying attention to how our bodies respond. If you’ve been on a similar journey of reconciling health, taste and environmental impact and arrived at a vegetarian, vegan, or paleo conclusion, please tell us about it in the comments, so we can be reminded of the many options that exist.
If you’re new to considering your mouth’s connection to the planet, I recommend you start with a week of food journaling, just recording what you ate at each meal and snacks. My husband just did this with his third-year college environmental science students, and they learned some fascinating things. You might be surprised about how you actually eat! And it’s the very first data in your own experiment. Let us know the results.
*Read Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong if you want to know in detail how the original, supposedly scientific US dietary guidelines were written without actually using any science. I dislike the failure of the author to make the distinction between good science and poor or no science; every one of those seven stories is a case of insufficient evidence, not bad science. But the stories themselves are fascinating.