The Myths Around Sustainable Eating

Cover photo by Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn on Unsplash

Food should be fun. Admit it, you’re probably looking forward to your next meal right now. So, it might feel a bit irritating when food gets dragged into debate when we’re just trying to enjoy some flavor. Controversies or prompts by experts and the general public alike arguing over veganism, fast food’s ingredients and packaging, cutting down on processed products, and the many other issues surrounding today’s food can seem killjoys when we’re just trying to take a break and enjoy some flavor in a stressful world.
Still, it’s undeniable that our eating habits have an impact on ourselves and others. Our current rate of consumption and agricultural practices, for example, are predicted to be draining the food supply at such a rate that we’ll only be able to feed the world until 2040. Foods have resource footprints similar to humans’ carbon footprints. In fact, reducing our diet-related carbon footprint (caused mostly by beef and then milk, pork, and high fructose corn syrup) by almost 20% from 2005 to 2014 avoided about 271 million metric tons that could have added to climate change otherwise. A little over a third of the United States’ population consumed fast food on any given day in 2013 - 2016, supporting an industry that uses a tenth of global water flows, adds harmful chemical additives to their menu items, produces tons of single-use waste, and is one of the largest investors in animal agriculture-- animal agriculture comprises about 70% of maximum allowable greenhouses gases for limiting global warming to less than 2°C by 2050. To truly enjoy the Hungry Games, perhaps we should first aim to change the game and its system for more untainted enjoyment.
That proposition is not a new conclusion. Discourse on how to most effectively do so has accumulated some more unsupported beliefs that might deter people from eating sustainably or lead us to participate in unhelpful practices with good intentions.

Here are some of those myths you might come across and better-supported practices to follow instead.
Top: Natalie Ng on Unsplash | Bottom: Ankhesenamun 96 on Unsplash

Meat is necessary for nutrition, yet full-commitment diets are the only effective way to have a positive environmental impact.

Animal-based foods are much more resource-intensive and environmentally impactful than plant-based. In 2009, animal-based foods like beef, pork, fish, poultry, and dairy took up more than three quarters of agricultural land use and two-thirds of agricultural carbon emissions-- despite only contributing a little over a third of the world’s protein. In fact, meat is completely unnecessary for protein while beans and nuts are around. They also provide the iron that meat boasts alongside peas, chickpeas, lentils, leafy greens, and more. Vitamin B-12 is harder to come by without animal products like dairy and eggs, but easy to find in vitamin form for a few bucks a month. Meat’s nutritional benefits aside, red meat and processed meats are linked with a higher risk of colon cancer and heart disease.
You don’t have to go completely vegetarian or vegan to make a big difference! If everyone in the United States alone cut back on their meat by a quarter, we would save about 82 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, with similar estimates to be expected in other developed countries with similarly high meat consumption.

Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash

2. Sustainable eating sacrifices the budget.

Clearly, sustainable eating is not at the loss of health. But sustainably sourced food, such as organic certified, is more expensive and sometimes less accessible than conventional food while we wait for demand to increase so that agricultural technology and economies of scale can reduce labor input and post-harvest handling costs. Still, there are ways to make your meal plans more sustainable that don’t cost more and might even save you some money.

  • For one, make sure you do have a meal plan! This way you are spending less on transportation and using fewer fossil fuels by combining all your shopping into one trip, as well as making yourself accountable beforehand to make sure you will actually use the food you buy.
  • When you do get to the store, passing up red meats altogether will eliminate the most environmentally harmful animal product from your shopping list, which also tends to be the most expensive compared to other meats.
  • Try to choose produce that’s local and in-season for your general area to support the fruits, veggies, etc. that had the shorter trip here.
  • Try to make sure you’re shopping at a store that doesn’t allow their unspoiled and non-perishable food end up in a landfill. Some more well-known American food donors include Publix, Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club, ACME, and Jewel-Osco. If you shop at a family-owned or other grocery stores, you might check whether they donate through research or reaching out. If not, suggest local food pantries, banks, and rescue programs to them.
  • If you participate in the US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and have a farmers’ market, you may check whether they have an Electronic Benefit Transfer that allows you to use your government-issued debit card and support farmers in the process.


Photo by Carl Schlabach on Unsplash

3. Supporting sustainable agriculture means hurting farmers who can’t afford to farm organically. 


Speaking of helping farmers, sustainable practices are not only in the favor of the environment and consumers’ health but also in favor of farmers-- and not just because they’re eating food too. The few corporate entities have too often stripped farmers of their autonomy as farmers unsupported by the US government are pressured to accept conditions that chase maximum yield with negative consequences for humans and the environment. Such consequences can include:

  • Soil degradation that undermines farmers’ long-term livelihood
  • Pollution in the water they drink and the air they breathe
  • Impairment of agriculture's resilience to climate change due to biodiversity loss

It isn’t the support of organic practices that weighs on US farmers, but agricultural policies that provide more support for monoculture production systems than biodiverse systems, the lack of protection for food system workers, and agribusiness waste of farmers’ valuable soil and water.

To solve the true problem for farmers, however, requires a little more work than skipping the burger and buying in season. Still, solutions are largely accessible. 

We can vote for politicians who will push policies that ensure food adequacy and protect small-scale farmers, and maybe even directly incentivize sustainable farming. 

We can let the ones that are already elected know that their constituents urgently need obstacles in the way of using agroecological methods to be removed: such obstacles to mention are farmers’ lack of access to credit while larger producers have full access, support of research focus on crop genetic engineering and creating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides instead of on organic technological innovation, policies that support monoculture crops, and powerful organizations and institutions remaining able to keep that power from the common farmer. 

If you’re in or nearby a farming community, are regulatory agencies protecting the farmers in your area from harmful corporate activities that have led to the consequences bulleted above? If not or not enough, get community members involved in noting this issue and forming the outcome you want for your community, so that you can all spread the word about the unsustainable practices that you were expected to just accept. Such communities are increasingly finding it most effective to draft laws that assert rights to health, welfare, and safety.


Do you have any favorite recipes that follow some of the suggestions here?


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