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Every day seems to bring with it some disheartening news on climate change and how it is changing our planet; the red flags are hard to ignore, yet, collectively, we do. Some experts say it’s because we humans are wired to respond to immediate personal threats, not slow-moving existential threats like climate change.1 It’s also likely that we’re just so overwhelmed by the problem, it’s easier to leave the solutions to someone else. But while we wait for others to “fix” the problem, our planet continues to warm and human health continues to suffer as a result. Killer storms, fires, and heat waves; crops lost to flooding or drought; a significant loss of essential vitamins and minerals in the plants we eat. Climate change is impacting our environment, and in turn, our health, in so many ways. But there is at least one solution in plain sight—the way we produce our food.
Here are three easy food swaps that might seem small, but are mighty action steps that can culminate into major shifts in the way food is produced, supporting a healthy environment, and a healthier YOU.
Regenerative agriculture encompasses “farming and grazing practices that can reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity,” and include practices that build soil health and fertility; increase water retention and reduce runoff; increase biodiversity and ecosystem health; and increase carbon sequestration in the soil.2 Regenerative, also known as holistic land management, goes beyond “sustaining” by actively using livestock to restore the land, leaving it healthier than it started—and there are some serious environmental benefits to eating meat (typically beef and bison, but can also include lamb and goats) raised this way. For a company that’s making a difference right here, right now, look to Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed, whose mission is to “nourish the soil, the plants, cattle, and people by holistically grazing cattle for their lifetime.”3 And if you can’t find meat that has been regeneratively raised, look for 100 percent grassfed, which will utilize many of the same practices (just avoid grassfed beef from Brazil, where large swaths of the Amazon are cut each year to make room for pasture).
Meat raised this way has huge environmental benefits, AND is better for you. One hundred percent grassfed/regeneratively grazed beef is nutritionally superior, containing more healthy fats like the omega-3s, and antioxidants like lutein, compared to conventional beef raised on grain.4 5
Another easy swap that makes a big impact on the environment, and your health, is switching from conventional confinement dairy to grassfed/organic/pasture-based dairy. First, there is the difference in nutritional profiles: pasture-based dairy has more healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, and amino acids.6 7 Secondly, cows raised in a grass-based system are never treated with genetically engineered rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), an artificial growth hormone that increases milk production and is commonly used in conventional dairy.8
Cows living in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) tend to acquire more infections, partly due to overcrowded living conditions, and it is common practice for feedlot operators to routinely administer antibiotics to prevent illness and accelerate growth.9 10 Better environmental conditions and less disease among pasture-raised animals means fewer antibiotics given, and even less antibiotic-resistance in humans.11 According to a report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists Food and Environment Program, “manure produced in conventional feedlots pollutes the air and combines with the runoff from fertilizers and pesticides used in cornfields to contaminate ground and surface water. Furthermore, the practice of feeding cattle antibiotics to promote growth increases the risk of antibiotic resistance in humans, leading to potential complications from bacteria-caused diseases.”
The third easy swap to help save the planet—and your health—is to go organic. Sometimes it can be hard to eat everything organic, so start by replacing your conventionally grown produce with organically grown. There are a few major reasons why this simple switch can go a long way. For starters, the environmental impacts of choosing organic are staggering. Organic farmers are focused on preserving the soil for future generations by farming in a way that builds nutrients and harbors beneficial organisms like earthworms and ladybugs.12 Organic farming neither causes nor leads to soil erosion, groundwater contamination, ocean dead zones, or loss of biodiversity like conventional farming does.13 Furthermore, research from the Rodale Institute demonstrates that soil under organic production can remove about 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year through sequestration. To put that number in perspective, that’s approximately 7,980 miles driven by one average passenger vehicle.14 15 16
Second, organic fruits and veggies contain no chemical insecticides, fungicides, or herbicides, including glyphosate—the world’s most widely used agricultural chemical and recently re-classified by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a probable carcinogen.17 If that doesn’t make you want to run as far away from the conventional produce section as possible, then consider the other reasons studies show eating organic benefits our health: reduces rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, infertility, birth defects, pre-eclampsia, recurrent ear infections in children, and attention deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity, and autism spectrum disorder in children.18 19
Third (or fourth, fifth, sixth, and so on if we’re splitting hairs), studies show that organically grown food has higher amounts of antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E and essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron, all nutrients that are vital for the healthy functioning of our bodies.20 21 22
Rounding out the reasons to go organic: GMOs. Genetically modified organisms are created through the process of genetic engineering, a technology that takes DNA from one organism and moves it into another, creating new varieties of plants and animals that aren’t found in nature.
Genetic engineering is prohibited in organic food and farming because of concerns about their environmental and health repercussions; when you choose organic, you’re automatically choosing non-GMO. Organic standards do not allow for farmers to plant GMO seeds, for organic livestock to eat GMO feed, or for organic food manufacturers to use GMO ingredients.23 Look for the certified organic seal to ensure that what you’re buying is actually organic. To claim a product is “organic” it must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.24
Plant-based products steer us away from eating meat and dairy, and some believe they are ultimately better for our health and for the planet, but many are made from GMOs. It’s important to read the food labels for each meat-free and dairy-free product you buy, especially since so many are made from soy and corn, two of the most common genetically engineered crops in the US. In fact, GMO soybeans make up 94 percent of all soybeans planted and 92 percent of all corn planted.25 26 While we’re not saying to do an about-face when it comes to eating plant-based, we are simply saying to take a closer look at the meat-free, dairy-free, and vegan products you choose.