10 Ways to Eat Toward a Better Food System in 2020

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

1. Eat Less Meat

You could call 2019 the year of the plant-based revolution, the year companies scrambled to develop good-tasting, protein-rich meat alternatives to satisfy consumers’ growing interest in health, sustainability and ethics. Meatless “meat” brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger can now be found at most fast-food chains, from McDonalds and Burger King to Dunkin Donuts.

Though controversial in some health and environmental circles – critics claim the substitutes are highly processed and contain GMOs – I believe these products are pushing us in the right direction as their aim is not to replace meat in the American diet but to serve as an occasional alternative for meat consumption. To me, this is the right message for our time as it is not practical – or even desirable – for everyone to go vegan.

Scientists are continuing to quantify the impact of raising animals for meat on the environment. A recent report from the World Resources Institute found that an additional 1.5 billion acres – which is almost twice the size of India – would be needed to feed the 9.8 billion people projected worldwide by 2050. The report said that to eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion to raise livestock (with its associated deforestation) [1] people in the U.S. and other heavy meat-eating countries would have to reduce their consumption of beef by 40%.

Why not start small? You might try for meatless Mondays or experiment with protein rich, plant-based recipes. Or if you’re in the mood for a burger, try the Impossible or Beyond products.

2. Eat Local and Seasonally

We now take for granted that we can eat fruits, from pineapples and kiwis to strawberries, all year long. Thanks to global trade, we enjoy the convenience of foods we can’t grow ourselves shipped and flown to us from all over the world. Our food system has been anchored in the promise of cheap fuel, but when gas prices go up and transportation costs rise, we continue to reap the benefits of low-cost food, even though the farmers at the other end make less.

In supporting farms in your region you can cut back on global and regional transportation costs and, at the same time, support small-scale farmers. If you’ve never been a member of a CSA (community support agriculture), join. A CSA is a monthly subscription box service that promotes a symbiotic relationship between the farm and consumer. The farm selects the recently harvested fruits and vegetables and then delivers them to customers, who get to experiment with new tastes and recipes. It’s a great reminder of what fruits and vegetables can be grown in your region and in what season. Find a CSA near you here.

3. Don't Fall for the Marketing

A commonly referenced marketing study by Nielson polled 30,000 consumers in 60 countries to learn what influences perceptions about brands and impacts purchasing decisions. The study found that 66% of global consumers and 73% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable brands. [2] Corporations have listened. In the grocery store today we see products marketed as “healthy,” “natural” and “sustainable.” Companies slap on graphics depicting trees or farms just to appeal to the conscious consumer.

Buyer beware, as such claims can be false. For example, in 2016, the World Health Organization sued Pepsi for marketing its Naked Juice product with a healthy image, even though the juices were almost pure sugar. Snack food companies offer “natural” Cheetos and potato chips that still have artificial flavorings and manufacturers of eco-friendly water bottles claim new bottles are designed to be sustainable with less plastic. But what’s left out is the fact that plastic bottles are among the most detrimental products to the environment. Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.[3]

To be fair, some brands do promote healthy, more sustainably packaged or ethically sourced products. But most multinationals making processed food spend the bulk of their budgets figuring out how to adjust their marketing to tug at our environmental conscious – and how to appear “green” without adopting green practices.

4. Cook More

The only way to ensure we know what goes into our food is to cook it from scratch. Of course, time rarely permits us to bake our own bread or make our own pasta, but experimenting once in a while with new recipes takes some of the power away from the companies and puts it back into our hands.

Buying local ingredients is often a privilege as is the time to cook them, but when possible, cooking at home is most often healthier, cheaper and fresher than eating in a restaurant or ordering out.

5. Read Labels

Dodging marketing is tricky but add to that the confusion of the numerous labels that certify our food. If you are looking for organic products, USDA Organic (United States Department of Agriculture) is a label to be trusted. Food products with this label must contain at least 95% organic ingredients with no synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or synthetic ingredients used in production or processing. The problem is this label is expensive for farmers to obtain, and it takes three years to transition a non-organic farm to certified organic. An alternate route for organic farmers is the “certified naturally grown” label where farmers audit one another for sustainable practices and has less associated costs and paperwork.

But keep in mind, organic labels do not always ensure the best quality or sustainably grown food. Organic does not mean chemical-free, only synthetic chemical free. There are ongoing debates about fair trade labels, free range, non-GMO, etc., so make sure to do some research before buying products based on labels alone. [4]

6. Learn About Regenerative Agriculture

For consumers, the organic label has been marketed as both better for your health and better for the environment, yet organic products still use chemicals and have a lower yield - which ultimately requires more land use. There is another method of farming, known as regenerative agriculture, that works to repair the land by building up soil health and capturing carbon from the atmosphere to sequester greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. This method of farming is slowly gaining attention around the world as farmers look for ways to improve their soil health after decades of mono-crop farming. At this point, there is no globally recognized label for regeneratively grown crops or premiums offered to farms who use these methods, but I believe we will see more of this in the not so distant future. [5]

7. Waste Less

One-third of the food produced globally is wasted,[6] a statistic hard to fathom when people are suffering from hunger all over the world. According to the USDA, U.S households toss out about 150,000 tons of food each day.

At the industrial level, produce that does meet aesthetic standards is often thrown away. A number of companies have popped up to help deliver “ugly” fruits and vegetables to consumers at often lower prices. There are also multiple startups working to connect restaurant excess with food banks or help businesses better manage unsold inventory.

Be aware of the waste you create. And my personal

advice – fall in love with your Tupperware.

8. Help Spread the Word that Food Contributes to Climate Change

According to the EPA, about 9% of U.S. greenhouse emissions come from agriculture.[7] This does not include transportation or electricity used in production. Almost half of these emissions are from fertilizers that release nitrous oxide and the rest are mainly from cow burps, which release methane into the air. Additionally, the post WWII monocropping farming methods, encouraged by government subsidies, require annual seed planting, which involves ripping up roots every year that releases carbon into the atmosphere. Alternatively, if roots are allowed to grow deeper, they could capture that carbon and hold it in the soil. (This is the regenerative agriculture concept I explain above.)

As the planet warms, farmers are experiencing global weather shifts that make farming even more unpredictable. Climate impacts, such as more frequent downpours contribute to increased flooding and erosion on farms across the Midwest. On the other hand, in California, farmers must find ways to deal with increasing drought and wildfire risks. Water scarcity also will play a huge role in the future of agriculture.

Consumers are yet to see these impacts result in higher prices. But they’re coming. Right now, it is the farmers who are suffering the most.

9. Connect to Your Food

Before eating your food, take a moment to consider and appreciate the human labor, soil and magic of the earth that went into growing it. If it’s a fruit or vegetable, look at the sticker to learn what country it came from and imagine the hands that might have picked it. If it’s a processed food, take a moment to think about the various ingredients and how they were produced.

Grocery stores have disconnected us all from the source of our food and those who grew it, and even if we can’t eat everything from the local farm, acknowledging the efforts of farmers brings us one step closer.

10. Follow my Blog and Instagram

Throughout the year I will be traveling across the US to learn up close what is happening in our food system. I will be talking with farmers and brands to understand how we can all make choices to support better farming practices and those that are ensuring we will be able to grow food for generations to come.

Join me on the illuminate journey!

[1] https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/12/how-sustainably-feed-10-billion-people-2050-21-charts

[2] https://www.nielsen.com/eu/en/press-releases/2015/consumer-goods-brands-that-demonstrate-commitment-to-sustainability-outperform

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/28/a-million-a-minute-worlds-plastic-bottle-binge-as-dangerous-as-climate-change

[4] https://www.farmaid.org/food-labels-explained/

[5] https://regenerationinternational.org/2017/02/24/what-is-regenerative-agriculture/

[6] http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/

[7] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

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