Unfortunately, your mouthwatering cheeseburger and perfectly salted fries may be part of a larger and much less palatable negative effect on the environment. Here's how the industrial food production process hurts Mother Earth:
- Water pollution: When agricultural chemicals, hormones, pesticides and fertilizers absorb into the water table, fish die and the drinking water becomes unclean, among other problems.
- Dead zones: Water runoff also contains tons of nutrients from fertilizers. This runoff feeds gigantic algae blooms in waterways like the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. These blooms spread for miles and choke off all existing life in the water beneath by interfering with oxygen levels.
- Air pollution: When livestock animals are confined, as they are with industrial meat production, noxious gases like sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and ammonia are released into the air.
- Energy suck: Scientists estimate that about 40 percent of the energy used in our industrial food system goes toward the production of (polluting) fertilizers and pesticides [source: Sustainable Table]
Not every tasty morsel you put in your mouth is part of an evil plot to destroy the world, however. Which foods are safe?
You've heard it a million times: Buy local. Here's why: Buying local cuts down on something called "food miles," or how far your food has been shipped. The blueberries you buy at the grocery store may have been air-freighted from Chile, which means those bite-size delights have a monster-sized carbon footprint. Even food with a "Made in the USA" label has likely been hauled a long way. On average, produce in the United States travels anywhere from 1,300 to 2,000 miles (2,092 to 3,218 kilometers) from the farm to the grocery store. If you want to calculate your foods' carbon footprint, put a "carbon footprint calculator" to work. You can find a food-specific calculator at Eatlowcarbon.org.
You'll also find that blueberries and other fruits and veggies taste better when they've only traveled 10 or so miles to your local farmers' market. Plus, buying local can provide some health benefits you wouldn't expect. For example, many allergy specialists recommend buying local honey. Because the bees live in your area, the honey contains the immune-stimulating compounds that help your body adapt to the world around it.
Buying out of season food is as good as guzzling gas. Here's how:
Let's say you want a tomato, but where you live, tomatoes aren't in season. You'll have to get a tomato from the grocery, and if you live in the United States, your grocer likely sells tomatoes that came from either Florida or Mexico. This tomato was picked green, so it wouldn't rot during transit, and traveled to your grocery store via an 18-wheeler truck. Once it arrived in your area, it likely was placed in a warehouse where it was gassed with ethylene to force it to ripen artificially.
On the other hand, if you buy a tomato in season from a local farmer, it likely ripened on the vine before it was plucked and traveled a short distance, saving tons of carbon emissions. Your tomato also tastes better. Why? Tomatoes need sunlight to produce sugar, which gives them their signature sweet, rich taste. If your tomato was picked when it wasn't ripe, it'll taste more like water.
If you eat beef products, you can’t do much better ecologically than grass-fed. Grass-fed means the cattle are raised and fed on pastures as opposed to in feedlots, where they're shoveled grains and antibiotics. Eating too many grains can boost the amount of E. coli in a cow’s stomach, which can sometimes lead to tainted meats and mass health scares.
So why would farms even bother to feed cows grain? Factory farms feed their livestock grain because the government provides large subsidies to farms that produce grains like soy and corn. These grains are rich in protein, which means they fatten up the animals. But the meat from grain-fed animals tends to be lower in “good fat” and higher in “bad fat.”
Research suggests that grass-fed beef, on the other hand, has more nutrients than grain-fed, specifically more beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Cows have naturally evolved to eat grass, not grains. Most cattle mature in the spring, and as their bodies grow, they eat newly-grown grass, which is chock-full of seeds and nutrients. These same nutrients are found in the meat you buy when you're looking to grill a steak.
But grass-fed isn't just healthier. Because the cows eat grass rather than corn or soy, the fertilizers and pesticides normally used on the farm to grow the feed aren't used at all. Rather than being cooped up with feed, the cows simply wander the pastures, which is more humane treatment for the animals. Farmers rotate their cattle through different pastures each year, which becomes a natural way to use and reuse land. When animals graze in a certain area, their manure fills that pasture. The manure disperses into the soil at a slow rate and naturally fertilizes it, making the soil healthy to grow more grass. The cows can then return to that pasture to feed.
Health experts tell us to eat fish for its omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart-healthy and help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. Salmon in particular is known for being high in omega-3s. However, if you want to be ecologically conscious, you should check into how your salmon arrived at your grocery store before you purchase it.
When salmon is dubbed "sustainable," that means that catching it won't put a dent in the salmon population and that the biodiversity of the fish habitat isn't negatively impacted. Environmentalists agree that wild Alaskan salmon is your best choice ecologically, since this type salmon isn't overfished and catching it won't negatively impact the salmon population or the biodiversity of the ocean.
On the other hand, farmed Atlantic salmon causes many problems for environment and fish populations, and here's why: In fish farms, thousands of fish are crammed into small areas, resulting in an accumulation of feces and the easy spread of disease. Because many of these fish farms are ocean based, the waste spills out into the surrounding waters and disease can be spread to the wild fish population. If the farmed fish are fed any sort of chemicals or hormones, those also leak into the surrounding waters via fish excrement. In some cases, the pollution is so bad that researchers have actually noted the rotting of the ocean floor [source: GoVeg.com].
Organic farming aims to minimize environmental impact through methods like crop rotation, compost, biological rather than chemical pest control, and green rather than synthetic fertilizers. Crop rotation keeps the biodiversity of the soil strong. Planting the same crops over and over in the same soil robs the soil of its nutrients over time and results in the need for fertilizers and soil additives. If crops are rotated, there's no need for additives. Also, when chemical pesticides are not used on crops, it protects the water table from those contaminants.
Organic produce is also free from genetic modification, which is when the DNA of a plant is altered to make the fruit or vegetables more desirable. For example, genetic modification may cause the plant to produce more fruit or vegetables, or it may make the plant resistant to certain diseases. Some people object to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly when they're designed to be herbicide resistant, which means that a farm can soak an entire field in herbicide to kill the weeds, and the crop will still survive. Genetic modification skeptics have concerns about what effect this herbicide soaking will ultimately have on the soil and on the human body.
Two researchers have made protein powder out of carbon dioxide, water and microbes. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
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