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This article was published 21/4/2018 (548 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘Are you eating as if the planet matters?" FoodTank blogger Danielle Nierenberg asks in a post aimed at drawing attention to tomorrow’s Earth Day.
It’s a valid question, but also one that has no easy answers in an era when the rhetoric around what to eat and what not to eat complicates even the most basic of daily food choices.
This year’s Earth Day theme is all about plastic. The Earth Day Network has launched a global multi-year campaign to end single-use plastics, promote alternatives to fossil fuel-based materials, promote 100 per cent recycling of plastics and foster greater accountability among corporations, consumers and governments.
Changing human behaviour is hard. But how can we not be inspired by the sight of landfills filled to overflowing and oceans and beaches littered by seemingly endless amounts of plastic-based garbage — much of it tied to how we produce and distribute food?
So what does an Earth Day diet look like?
The available advice is often contradictory and narrowly focused.
Even some of Earth Day tips posted online at earthday.org/earth-day-tips/ range from basic common sense to debatable. You can’t really argue with suggestions such as packing your lunch in a reusable bag, using a refillable water bottle, shunning the use of disposable plates, composting kitchen waste and only running the dishwasher when it is full.
Suggesting people garden to produce at least some of their own food and supporting local suppliers to reduce the cost of transporting food makes sense too, as long as that single trip to the grocery store up the street isn’t replaced by multiple trips to various suppliers to source meat, vegetables, fruits and other items.
The right answer becomes less clear when it comes to discussions over whether to eat meat or rely on plant-based proteins and whether to buy organic versus chemically supported agriculture.
The Earth Day Network promotes reduced meat consumption "to reduce carbon emissions from the livestock industry" and sourcing organic foods "to keep your body and the environment free of toxic pesticides." It also advises supporting farmers and companies who use organic ingredients.
As production systems go, organic and conventional systems each have their advantages and disadvantages. One downside to organic systems is that due to a lack of research and extension support, farmers have a difficult time achieving the same yields as farmers using artificial inputs. As a result, more land is needed to achieve the same production.
Conventional systems produce higher yields, but that said, those yields aren’t necessarily sustainable when considering the economic and environmental costs. And given the current overburdened state of markets, it’s questionable whether a little less production would be a bad thing.
However, it is misleading to suggest the food produced is laced with toxic pesticides; regulators routinely test food products to ensure they don’t contain harmful residues.
Promoting the avoidance of meat and organic agriculture in the same breath is also problematic. There are lots of vegetarian organic consumers, but organic farmers recognize the role of livestock in recycling nutrients. Some hard-core vegans go so far as to suggest you can’t be a true vegetarian and organic too, because of the sector’s reliance on "natural" fertilizers.
Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently used computer models to study what would happen if everyone in America went vegan to address current concerns about human health related to meat-based diets and climate change.
They found people would have to eat more calories but they’d be getting less nutrition.
While greenhouse gas emissions from plant-based agriculture would be lower, that benefit would be partly offset by an increased need for artificial fertilizer.
However there is one concept all the pundits can agree on when it comes to eating in an Earth-friendly way, whether we’re talking about packaging, plastics, transportation, meat specifically, or calories in general: use less.
What all this tells us is that there is room for diversity in our food system. Less of this or more of that doesn’t mean all or nothing. It means think about how we’re eating — but not too much. Happy Earth Day.
Laura Rance is editorial director at Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.