Embarking on this journey to live fit and green has been empowering, but I am very grateful that I am not going at this on my own. I have found a plethora of books that have helped me make better consumer choices and create healthier, more environmental habits.
Recently, I have been reading an enjoyable book, “Do One Green Thing” by Mindy Pennybacker. I like it for its simplicity and positive focus on small changes one can make in their diet, homes, and travels to help the planet. (I must also note that I’ve recently listened to another book called “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” by Thomas Friedman that argues “simple” and “small” changes won’t cut it if we are to experience a “Green Revolution”. While I totally and whole-heartedly agree that riding your bike once a week or foregoing red meat once a week won’t solve all the environmental problems, I also believe that incorporating a “can-do” attitude and making progressively small changes to bigger changes will produce better success than overloading our system with EVERYTHING all at once. Operant conditioning, my friends.)
I have been incorporating several ideas from “Do One Green Thing”, and continue to strive to do a little more each and every day. And I want to share some of my insights from the book.
Since many of my posts from this past week have been focused on GMOs, I thought it might be fitting to start with some of my revelations about our eating habits, particularly our produce and meats/dairy, and what Pennybacker had to say relating to the subject. (Better buckle up, folks, this is going to be a doozy of a post)
I think a majority of us realize that “organic” food is better than processed foods, packaged foods, and even conventional produce and animal products. I’m not sure we understand exactly why “organic” is better, though. The main benefit is the reduction of pesticides the food has been in contact. “Approximately 940 million pounds of pesticides are used on crops in the US every year.” Almost half of those chemicals are linked to cancer or nervous system issues. Pesticide chemicals are also synthetically made, usually with petroleum or other fossil fuels. So, by ensuring your food is certified organic, you will increase health benefits, and help cut down on fossil fuels.
It’s not the easiest thing to do, to buy only organic produce 100% of the time. I’m not the only one to recognize the challenge. Fortunately, many environmentalists have gotten together and put out the “Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen” lists, which help pick and choose which of your produce you should always buy organic, and which ones you can feel okay about buying conventionally because they are so low in pesticides. Your best bet? Onions. They are the lowest in pesticides of all fruits and veggies. What should you always buy organically grown? That all depends on what you eat the most of, but overall, leafy greens are better organic, as well as fruits grown in orchards (in trees).
Organic farming benefits the earth as well by providing compost with microorganisms and earthworms, making the soil fertile naturally, rather than adding more chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. Organic farming also helps prevent erosion by keeping native vegetation and forested areas rather than clear cutting.
One thing Pennybacker mentions about produce is that “organic” and “local” are not mutually exclusive. While, getting local foods, especially at a Farmers’ Market where food typically doesn’t travel more than 100 miles, is better for the environment, it may not be organically grown. Somethings to ask your farmers to ensure you are getting organically grown produce are whether or not they use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, if they use genetically engineered seeds, how their ingredients are sourced, and what they are doing to protect soil quality, wildlife habitats, and watersheds. It sounds like you might be interrogating the poor farmer, but I’ve had countless conversations with vendors at the market and farmers at U-Pick stores, and I’ve never heard a complaint. Honestly, I think sometimes they like bragging about their products. At one farm, I casually asked how they kept animals and insects from eating all their berries. They looked at me strange at first, and then replied simply, “we have plenty, if they want it”. Birds keep the bug population down, and eat such a minimal amount of berries that they are actually welcome on the farms.
When you are at a supermarket, there are some labels you can look for to help make better choices in regards to what is organic and what you can avoid. “Fair Trade Certified” ensures that the farmers and workers are treated and paid fairly. “Food Alliance Certified” protects the farmers and animal welfare. “Rainforest Alliance Certified” identifies tropical products that are grown in ways that preserves the rainforests and the workers. And USDA Organics is the clearest and most reliable standard for produce, with no GMOs, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers.
Now, let me make this clear. Just because it says the word “organic” does not magically make the food healthy, or even healthier. Processed and packaged food is still processed and packaged whether or not it has the “organic” label on it. The ingredients may not have the pesticide residue, but junk food is still junk food. Organic peanut butters often contain sugars. Organic sugars, but sugars none the less (not to mention that dirty, dirty word: “palm oil”). Organic white flour is still less healthy than whole wheat flour, whether it’s organic or not, because of the fiber and vitamins whole wheat flour provides.
Labeling can be incredibly misleading, too. “Natural” doesn’t mean a damn thing. I can’t find any information on what “natural” labeling does for you, the animals, or the environment. I’m pretty sure it’s a marketing word. But not even all organic labeled food is the same. “100% organic” means all the ingredients are certified organic, and it usually displays the USDA Organic label. “Organic” labeling on processed foods means about 95% of the ingredients are organically grown, and it, too, will have the USDA Organic label. If it says “Made with Organic”, be aware that only 70% of the ingredients are organic. For me, this is one other reason avoiding processed foods is ideal, as I don’t worry about the confusion and muddling.
Animal products are another huge hot button issue when it comes to health and the environment. From the release of greenhouse gases (methane, which is 23 times more powerful than Carbon dioxide), animal waste spills into waterways, the astronomical amount of water and pesticide usage, and the deforestation of rainforests and wildlife habitats, meat production is the most environmentally harmful food on the planet. Livestock production accounts for at least 18% of the emissions worldwide. And red meat is 150% more harmful than even chicken or fish! And it takes about 43,000 liters of water to produce a pound of beef. So, if we each cut out one burger, we’d actually save over 10,000 liters of water! Think about how much we can save by eliminating red meat altogether! I know, I know. Too much, too soon. But starting small can bring great change as well. If we eliminated meat from our diets just one day out of the week, we would reduce the amount of greenhouse gases equivalent to driving 760 miles less in a year. If the whole country did it, it would be the same as removing 20 million midsize cars off the road for an entire year.
These two food productions, produce and animal products, go hand in hand, especially when discussing GMOs. Half of the corn grown in the United States is for livestock feed. With such an immense amount of food going towards feeding our food, you can almost guarantee that most of the livestock feed is not organically grown. Besides the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, most of grain, soy, and corn are genetically modified. Pasture raised and grass fed beef is considered “cooler” because grasses require little to no pesticides or fertilizers.
Labels can be tricky in these instances as well. While USDA Organics is a great label for identifying produce, it may not mean what we hope it means with beef and poultry. USDA Organic animal products are better for your health, but it’s not necessarily better for the animals. They are fed 100% organic feed, but not necessarily raised on pastures. Good labels for animal products include “American Grassfed Association”, “Animal Welfare Approved”, “Certified Humane”, “Food Alliance Certified”, and “Demeter Biodynamics”. These ensure humane treatment of the animals and ensuring animals are pasture raised and spend a majority of their lives outdoors.
Unfortunately, our dairy products aren’t much better than the beef. Many dairy cows are treated with a genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). This hormone makes cows not just produce enough milk, it makes them overproduce, which is understandably painful with swollen udders and prone to infections. There are risks to human health as well. “Cows treated with antibiotics increase the likelihood that antibiotic-resistant bacteria will develop in bodies of those who drink the milk.” There is also a link between hormone treated cows and insulin-growth-promoting hormones that play a part in development of diabetes and breast cancer. One solution is to drink organic, non-treated milk. For me, the answer is much simpler. I have eliminated a lot of dairy from our diet. Cheese isn’t that great for you anyways. I do love it, so I have opted with purchasing goat milk cheese, which is rarely treated with hormones or antibiotics. But all my milk has been replaced with coconut milk, soy milk, or almond milk. I make vegan cheese like parmesan or cottage cheese. And I haven’t used butter in about a year. Oddly enough, I’m not missing it.
All this food talk, and I haven’t even touched base on our imported and exotic foods. Our coffee, chocolate, wines, teas, sugar, and spices. That is a whole other can of worms, I guess. Or at least another 1000 words that no one has the patience to read about in one sitting. But there are important aspects that we should consider for them as well. Organic labeling is just as important for that as for our produce and dairy.
So, your ONE green thing? That will benefit your health and the environment? Well, from this particular post, that’s a tough one. My best suggestion is to get to know your food. I mean, KNOW it. Talk to your vendors at the farmers’ market. Ask the tough questions, and discuss sustainability with them. Be sure not just WHERE your food was grown or raised, but HOW. If possible, grow your own. Be connected not just to the earth but what comes from the earth. Get connected to the sustenance of life. And, well, get a little EarthFit.