A cleaner, greener world starts with us. In celebration of Earth Day, Shondaland is looking across the spectrum of our existence to see how updating the everyday – our diets, beauty regimes, cars, wardrobes, and more – can help care for the planet with thoughtfulness and grace.
While Camilla Marcus, the founder of the zero-waste pantry-provisions brand west ~ bournewas working in the restaurant industry on the East Coast, she saw firsthand how food – depending on how it’s consumed and discarded – can actually harm the environment.
From witnessing perfectly good fare being wasted nightly to learning how restaurants source their ingredients, the chef and environmental activist began paying even more attention to how these processes were impacting the Earth. “The whole system of getting non-plant-based food to your door,” Marcus says, “is incredibly taxing on the environment.”
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Depending on what’s being grown and where, a tremendous amount of water, energy, and land must be used to produce and grow certain meats and crops. Then, packaging creates plastic waste, and transportation releases carbon emissions into our environment, expanding the carbon footprint of the food on your plate. “The question,” Marcus asks, “is how can you minimize that to the greatest extent possible?”
Finding new, more sustainable ways to eat is not only beneficial to the planet, but it’s also good for our individual health. Ian Martin and Aaron Bullock, co-founders of the artisanal nondairy cheese company Misha’s, started their business when they became fascinated with thoughtful food choices as preventive health care. “Food is the first medicine,” Bullock says. Martin, an accomplished musician turned certified raw vegan living foods chef, joined forces with Bullock because he too believes that people deserve – and need – better options for healthy food that’s also good for the Earth.
“There’s no planet B,” Marcus tells Shondaland. “There’s no other option here but to create a new path forward.” If you care about tomorrow’s world, reducing your carbon footprint with your diet can be a creative and enjoyable place to start. Here are ways to pack a powerful punch to climate change with what you put on your table.
Use what’s in season
When you browse the aisles of your local grocery store, you might be accustomed to seeing strawberries on the shelves year-round. Despite this seeming normal, it’s not what nature intends. “When you think about carbon footprint, a lot of that has to do with the fact that we eat things out of season,” Bullock says. It takes a massive amount of energy and resources (including artificial lighting and heat) to continually grow crops out of cycle and keep them widely available during every season.
Marcus points out that Earth is not an infinite resource, and if demand outweighs what can be supplied, the scale of nature is tipped. “The more that we’re pushing the Earth to grow things that don’t make sense for temperature [and] time of year, we’re just depleting it, ”Marcus says. “There is a limit to what that can do.” Not only is eating fruits and vegetables in their natural season better for the environment, but it’s actually fresher, tastier, and more nutritious than when consumed out of season.
In spring, produce like snap peas, asparagus, avocados, carrots, radishes, and rhubarb are widely in season. “Talk to your farmers at the farmers market,” Marcus says. These experts know what is being grown within your community and more importantly, what is being grown in sync with nature.
During the Industrial Revolution, America experienced a shift from agrarian culture to an economy fueled by mass production and conformity. “Everything was about consistency and perfection,” Marcus says of the emergence of factories. Now, food that doesn’t meet retailers’ standards for color and appearance is thrown away, contributing to an estimated 1.3 billion tons of yearly global food wasteaccording to the United Nations.
Although modern society pushes for cosmetic impeccability – or identically plump tomatoes year-round – unshapely or mismatched fruits and vegetables are just as delicious and nutritious because they aren’t processed or preserved.
To help combat food waste and celebrate nature’s order, Marcus believes we should welcome variety and imperfection. “Perfect is boring,” he says. “Imperfection is what makes us human. That is the basis of nature. It is not meant to be perfect cubes 24-7. That’s living in a manufactured world. ”
Don’t be afraid to pick up the fun-shaped potato, a slightly distorted bell pepper, or a grouping of produce that isn’t the same exact size at your local market. A tiny quirk in your veggie’s appearance has no proven impact on flavor or freshness. As the saying goes: God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt. (Just be sure to rinse properly.)
When it comes to food, Bullock says one of the biggest contributors to climate change is the amount of energy expended to move products from one place to the other. The greenhouse gas emissions released from food transportation, especially highly perishable foods transported by air, are devastating to the environment. A great way to curb your carbon footprint is to consume produce and meats that are grown or produced near you and buy only what you need.
Besides foraging at your local farmers’ market, Bullock encourages those seeking to reduce their environmental impact to regularly visit, support, and shop directly at a local farm in close proximity. “Frankly, you’ve never had food as good as when you eat it in season, right off that farm, as soon as it comes out of the ground,” Bullock says. It’s true: A fruit or vegetable will never be as nutritious as the second it’s picked from the ground, tree, or vine. The moment it’s harvested, it begins losing its nutritional value by the hour. The sooner you get it, the better it is for you – and the better it tastes.
Not only will a trip to the local farm or farmers market nourish you, but you may also be left with a lasting impression. “You’re going to learn something. “Maybe they’ll let you pull a carrot out of the ground,” Bullock says. “It’s an experience that connects you to the planet, and it also gets you conserving.”
Eat less meat
Raising animals is an incredibly water- and energy-intensive process, especially in comparison to vegetables. Animals, themselves, create a lot of emissions too. The biggest culprit of toxic CO2 and land use is red meat, according to a 2021 research article published in an Oxford journal. Martin says to try eliminating beef from your diet or at least try greatly reducing it. “We know that everybody’s not going to live a plant-based lifestyle, but everybody can make [more thoughtful] choices, ”Martin says.
If you can’t see yourself going vegetarian or vegan, transition to a more “flexitarian” or semi-vegetarian diet. Experimenting with no meat doesn’t have to be an every meal or everyday affair. You can start with one meal a week. An Environmental Science and Technology paper found that replacing red meat and dairy products with chicken, fish, eggs, or vegetables one day each week results in a significant reduction in greenhouse gases.
The overall goal is to reduce eating animal products to the greatest extent possible, which Marcus says shifts demand and awareness. In fact, it’s already working. An IPSOS study in 2019 found that the amount of Americans following plant-based diets is up nearly 9.6 million over the last 15 years, a 300 percent increase.
“Very small steps can collectively create big change,” Marcus says. “Imagine if every person went plant-based even one to two days a week. That one decision could have a huge ripple effect, so don’t get bogged down in ‘Oh, I have to do it all or nothing.’ Start with something. ”
Be creative with food scraps
When food ends up at the landfill and rots, it releases methane – a dangerous greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. One word: leftovers. From throwing together a jam to creating sauces, repurposing what’s in your fridge or pantry is the ultimate sustainability move. You can do this by thinking about food waste as you cook.
Saved leftover bread crust can be baked into croutons for salad, soup, or casseroles. Pop leftover herbs into ice trays for delicious cocktail cubes. Cook stews and risottos with wine that’s gone flat as opposed to pouring it down the drain. Regrow vegetables by putting their stalks in water. These choices will help save the planet and your money.
Martin personally recommends using scraps to make your own stock, a tastier alternative than when a recipe calls for water or the canned variety. When cutting up vegetables like onions, carrots, celery, squash, and mushrooms, save the stalks and skins in a bag, then stick it in the freezer. “When the bag is full, boil everything,” he says, then let it simmer for 20 to 30 minutes before straining the liquid into a container to freeze or refrigerate. “Everything that’s left over is compost.” Another method Martin uses to reduce his carbon footprint is dehydration, which dates back to ancient hunter-gatherer societies. With a dehydrator, you can dry your own herbs and foods. “That’ll preserve it for months,” he notes, “if not over a year.”
The goal is to stop throwing food away that doesn’t need to be tossed and to make a habit of eating and repurposing the food immediately available to you. “Make interesting things out of them,” Bullock says. Transform a leftover curry into a breakfast rice or fold leftover ingredients into a casserole. “Be willing and open-minded to take flavors that you might not have considered and make them into new things.”
Mia Brabham is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter at @hotmessmia.
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