What Are the Ethical and Environmental Costs of Healthy Food?

Get informed about the non-financial costs of some of our favorite healthy foods before hitting the grocery store.
What Are the Ethical and Environmental Costs of Healthy Food?

Whole-wheat, organic, free-range — it seems every time we turn around, there’s a new, healthier food option available. Fretting over calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the grocery store leaves little room to think about the ethical consequences of our food choices. What’s best for one person’s diet doesn’t always line up with what’s best for a given community, and good-for-you foods aren’t always good-for-earth foods. In fact, some of our healthy favorites have some gnarly implications for Mother Earth and even other humans throughout the world. So we’re breaking down some of the well-known players to figure out the ethical issues involved, and offering an action plan for eating more kindly.

Veggie Tales

It’s the most contested grocery store smackdown since peanut butter vs. almond butter. Which is better: imported organic produce or local, conventionally grown fruits and veggies? On one hand, nobody likes eating a berry coated in pesticides and funky chemicals. Long-term exposure to pesticides can cause chronic health problems and even poisoning Impact of pesticides use in agriculture: their benefits and hazards. Aktar MW, Sengupta D, Chowdhury A. Interdisciplinary Toxicology. 2009 March; 2(1):1-12.. On the other hand, long-distance food hauling releases harmful greenhouse gases and can result in less fresh, lower-quality produce. What’s an informed shopper to do? Read on for the lowdown.

Far-Flung Fruits & Vegetables
 

Importing organic fruits and vegetables via airplane or long-distance trucking releases tons of carbon dioxide emissions (one of the greatest climate change culprits) every year. Eating locally grown, seasonal food, some argue, is a better choice for the environment — and your health, too. Most of the time, produce and meat from local farms (“local” is loosely defined as within a 100-mile radius) tend to be more nutritious and contain fewer chemicals than food that’s grown far away. Extra bonus: Eating close to home helps support local economies. But while locally grown food is often perceived as the greener choice, some larger producers actually end up producing fruits and veggies more efficiently, even if they have to ship them thousands of miles. So when choosing local, the clearest benefit is amped up nutrition.

What We Can Do: Don’t zone out in the produce aisle. While choosing local fare is a fun idea, it’s just as important to eat safely. Definitely try local and organic for the “dirty dozen” — the 12 foods with the highest rate of pesticide residue. Some produce, like the “clean fifteen” are just as safe when grown conventionally, so buy these locally when available. 
Organics

Organic labels are not a guarantee of ethically grown, vitamin-loaded food. A recent study found that organic foods have fewer pesticides than conventionally grown vittles, but they might not be more nutritious. Another research project found that while organic cultivation is better for the environment per unit of space, it might actually be worse than conventional agriculture per fruit or vegetable. On average, organic methods produce up to 34 percent less food than conventional farming. That means each organic tomato carries a larger burden of the overall ecological drawbacks of using land to grow food, like contaminating groundwater, degrading soil, and producing greenhouse gases. Ultimately, it all comes down to the techniques used by a given farmer and the expertise with which they implement those growing strategies.

What We Can Do: For some people, ingesting fewer chemicals and pesticides is priority numero uno. Others consider organic food more of an afterthought or a small luxury. Regardless of personal preferences, be aware that even if a label says “organic,” that doesn’t mean it’s supercharged with nutrients or grown from baby angel smiles. All food production has some drawbacks, so it’s important to understand the positive and negative aspects of going organic.

Animal Kingdom 
 

For many people, lean red meat, poultry, and fish are important parts of a healthy and balanced diet. Red meat trimmed of fat is a good source of protein, vitamin B, zinc, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids Lean meat and heart health. Li D, Siriamornpun S, Wahlqvist ML, Mann NJ, Sinclair AJ. Department of Food Science and Nutrition, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005; 14(2):113-9., as is skinless chicken. Fish is loaded with healthy fats, protein, and vitamins and nutrients that can help reduce risk of heart attack and stroke. These proteins are nutritional all-stars, but raising livestock and seafood can have some serious environmental drawbacks. Check out the facts below before shopping. 

Seafood
There are plenty of fish in the sea — until there aren’t. Currently 85 percent of the world’s fishable areas (aka fisheries) are exhausted or on the path to collapse. Fishermen use big nets to catch nonfarmable fish — and these can also snare innocent bystander sea creatures like dolphins and sea turtles. Farm fishing can be a great way to produce more seafood, but it comes with its own issues. Certain methods of farming can pollute the ocean, release invasive species into new environments, and damage delicate habitats.

What We Can Do: The best way to help stop overfishing and pollution is to buy responsibly. Use a seafood buying guide like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch pocket guide to find the most local, environmentally friendly fish. Look up the 411 on any fish or seafood at Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Eco-Ratings website. The Blue Ocean Institute offers a list of ocean-friendly substitutes for popular fish varieties, and fish-lovers outside the United States can check Overfishing.org for resources on sustainable seafood worldwide.
Meat & Poultry
Raising meat and poultry for food is a lesson in numbers — and not necessarily good ones. Some sources suggest livestock produce as much as 51 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases every year, though others argue it's closer to 18 percent. But no matter the estimates, it still takes significant resources to produce meat, with approximately 2,500 gallons of water and 16 pounds of wheat needed to raise just one pound of beef. Clearing land for cattle ranching alone has been linked to up to 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Every hamburger or chicken wing has a high environmental impact, from the fossil fuels used for transport, to the grain cows and chickens eat, to the waste the animals produce.

What We Can Do: As weird as it may be to eat a meal without animal products, eating less meat isn’t as tough as it seems. Cutting down on meat might also benefit our health: Ditching the steaks reduces exposure to antibiotics and may help lower blood pressure and cholesterol (though there’s some debate about both these points) Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Siri-Tarino, PW, Sun, Q., Hu, FB, et al. Children’s Hospital, Oakland Research Institute, California. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010 Mar;91(3):535-46. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725. Epub 2010 Jan 13. If going totally veggie isn’t your cup of tea, try dining on alternative proteins two or three times a week or going meat-free just one day a week (on Meatless Mondays, for example). Or make like foodie writer Mark Bittman, who famously tries to go “vegan ‘til dinner” for health, financial, and environmental reasons.

Fair Fare
 

Fair trade sounds like something more likely to happen at the third grade lunch table than at the supermarket. What’s the deal? The Fair Trade Certified label is an agreement among companies to stick to a base price for commodities. Unlike market prices, Fair Trade prices ensure that workers are paid enough to cover costs of living — food, shelter, education, and healthcare — even if market prices drop. Alongside promoting safe and fair working conditions, Fair Trade also encourages the development of sustainable and environmentally friendly farming and manufacturing. Springing for Fair Trade versions of foods with a history of human rights violations can have a big effect on the lives of farmers and plantation workers.

Coffee
 

Coffee makes the morning merry and bright, but it’s not as great for the small, independent farmers who grow about 70 percent of coffee. Farmers often produce more beans than needed, so large commercial buyers can shop around and score beans for less than production cost. Unfortunately, most coffee growers lose money in a given season, even when the harvest is plentiful. A local fancy coffee shop might charge $5 for a cappuccino, but it’s unlikely the coffee farmers will see even a small chunk of the change. Coffee production has ecological implications, too. The beans grow best in a tropical climate, so farmers often clear rainforest to make plantations. The deforestation causes soil erosion, loss of habitat for plants and animals, and greenhouse gas emissions produced by clearing techniques among other issues.

What We Can Do: Be prepared to fork over a bit more cash for environmentally and socially responsible beans. Start by choosing Fair Trade, which will ensure that small-scale farmers are adequately compensated for their labor. Then pick “shade-grown” coffee, which is cultivated under the canopy layer without destroying the rainforest. If helping the environment isn’t enough incentive, consider your taste buds: Shade-grown coffee takes longer to ripen than sun-grown beans, so the flavor is often richer and more complex.

Photo by Caitlin Covington

Bananas
This tropical food looks like a ray of sunshine, but bananas have an ugly side, too. Crack open any history book to read about how American magnates exploited workers and ruled their so-called Banana Republics with an iron fist throughout the 20th century. Working conditions have improved slightly since then, but banana harvesters still work grueling hours, earn little pay, have few rights, and are often exposed to dangerous pesticides.

What We Can Do: Look for the Fair Trade sticker in the produce aisle; these products come from farms and plantations that are committed to high social and environmental standards. The “Big Three” — aka Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte — control two-thirds of banana production worldwide, so spending just a bit extra on independent farmers really does make a difference.

Photo by Kelli Dunn
Quinoa
 

This “recently discovered” superfood is hardly new — quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes since about 3,000 B.C.E. But in 2006, the protein-packed seeds leapt from obscurity to tremendous popularity throughout the world. Prices have tripled since the little seeds became famous, but local consumption by Bolivians and Peruvians has dwindled because it’s more profitable for farmers to ship quinoa abroad than to sell it locally. Growers typically hang on to some of the crop for personal consumption, but many poorer urban-dwelling Bolivians and Peruvians can’t afford the nutritious staple. Some argue that as a result, the rate of malnutrition among children has risen in recent years. On the flip side, some quinoa cultivators have cashed in on the global food trend and can afford to build new homes, send their children to university, and accomplish other goals that previously seemed out of reach. And while the quinoa craze hasn't pushed growing countries to the brink of famine — or even caused the food shortages some outlets report — it has been causing other social and environmental problems in the Andes. In recent years, property disputes between potential growers have gotten ugly, turning into violent Romeo and Juliet-style feuds between towns. Because growing quinoa is so lucrative, people are flocking to farms from cities instead of vice versa. While more country-dwellers cuts down on unemployment in cities, it could lead to overcrowding and soil degradation in high-altitude quinoa growing areas called the altiplano. All the intensified cultivation isn’t ideal for the land, either. Traditionally, quinoa farmers rotated their fields each season and grazed llamas in the resting fields, which helped restock the rocky soil with nutrients. Because quinoa is so profitable, farmers are cultivating for several seasons in a row without letting the land lie fallow, which can destabilize the already delicate land. Plus, in an effort to join the quinoa craze, many llama herders are abandoning their flocks — which means the already rocky and inhospitable soil is losing a key source of fertilizer.

What We Can Do: Almost all quinoa on grocery store shelves in North America is from the Andes, but this might be changing soon. North American farmers have started capitalizing on quinoa’s adaptability and are experimenting with growing the popular seeds in Oregon, Washington, and the Rocky Mountains. Look for local, sustainable quinoa in the next few years. Until then, try to limit quinoa consumption and substitute with other grains. One more option available now: Although tough to find, some brands of quinoa have been following Fair Trade regulations.

The Takeaway
 

Sometimes choosing environmentally friendly, sustainable, socially acceptable, ethical, and healthy food isn’t so easy (shocking, we know). The best way to pick the right food for a specific diet and lifestyle is to get all the facts first and make informed decisions at the grocery store.

How do you decide which foods to eat and which to pass up? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.

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