Issue of Sustainability Much Bigger than Supposed

February 27, 2018 in Food Economics, Foodland, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

I listened to a presentation by Danielle Nierenberg, the founder of FoodTank (like ThinkTank for food) and Chris Vogliano, a Registered Dietitian and doctoral student from New Zealand. I feel that I’m moderately informed about sustainable agriculture, by which I mean the production of food, fiber, or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public heath, and animal welfare. But I was pleasantly surprised that these presenters gave me some new ways of thinking and some new issues to consider. I thought that maybe you’d like to just see a quick list of ideas that I gathered from their presentation. Before I leave this introduction to share what I learned, let me share one of my favorite takeaways. It was their comment that even minor shifts in sustainable practices could be helpful. It really warmed my heart as I’ve been continuing to embrace the concept that “Better is the New Perfect – year 2018.”

The top three ways to make our diets more sustainable:

  1. Choose sustainable protein options – Interestingly, what’s good for us is good for the planet, too. Meat and dairy are the leading contributors to greenhouse gasses – don’t forget all that goes into the growing of crops to feed animals. Choosing plant protein sources to supplement animal protein sources; or even replace animal protein sources for a meal, or a day, not only benefits the planet, but reduces the risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer; and is economical. The current dietary guidelines include the following statement, “Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact.”

The presenters included a discussion of the Blue Zones (Longevity Hotspots), which includes Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece. You can see a chart of what the top five zones have in common at Wikipedia. One aspect held in common among the blue zone locations is the consumption of plant-based diets.

  1. Promote dietary biodiversity. There are 391,000 known plant species, 5,538 are known to be used for human food; but interestingly, only 3 crops – rice, wheat and corn – provide more than 50% of the world’s plant-derived calories. It’s good for the diversity of our intestines to eat a diverse diet. The world is growing foods that are calorie dense, not nutrient dense. Of course, the food processors use these cheap calorie-dense foods to make much of what modern America is eating.
  2. Reduce wasted food

Some of the problems that add to a lot of food waste are already recognized:

  • Consumers buy more food than they can use. Meal planning is inadequate, leading to wasted ingredients, overlooking available fresh food (shop the fridge first) and using shopping lists the help a shopper avoid inflated amounts, could help improve this problem. Strive to develop a habit of eating leftovers. Check the trash out – what’s getting to the trash? If there’s consistent and sizable plate waste, consider using smaller plates and improved portion control. If you’re having trouble using your fresh produce before it spoils, consider using more frozen vegetables and fruits. It’s not just the actual food waste, but the agricultural gas, emissions and so on.
  • Standardized dating labels would solve part of the problem. Consumers are frequently confused by the dates. No wonder, as the dates vary state-by-state, and retailer-by-retailer. Use or freeze by dates is one of the newer ways of helping the consumer. The speakers cite research that found that over 90% of consumers throw out food too early, leading to massive food waste.
  • Systems for food recovery, feeding hungry people is growing. That is, giving food to organizations that have the ability to dispense it quickly.
  • On-going improvement to food donation programs can help.
  • Give food to neighbors and friends, if you can’t use it in a timely fashion.
  • Up cycling, using otherwise wasted food for animal feed.
  • Composting for use in urban gardening; some cities have composting programs. When food goes into landfills, it often produces methane gases, but when food is composted it is turned over and methane gases are not produced.

Finally the speakers gave a couple of hints of how consumers could make progress. One of the examples was tacos. They suggested that if the consumer is used to ground beef tacos, they could switch to having fish sometimes; to mixing the beef with beans; or just eliminating the beef and having bean tacos. They also used burgers in a similar example moving from beef to poultry, to bean or mushroom burgers. The final suggestion was moving meat toward being like a condiment instead of the main feature of the meal. Usually, when we choose, soup, stews, casseroles, and stir-fries we decrease the proportion of meat and increase the plant-based foods.

Yes, there was a lot of information and lots that can be done; but let’s come back to the concept that small changes by lots of people can make a big impact. Better is the new perfect.