We all need to eat food.
Unless you’re a gourmet beast who orders every meal off restaurant menus or food truck blackboards, what you eat starts with what’s on your grocery list. And your groceries can have a major impact on the planet. First, food emits a ton of greenhouse gases—or should we say two tons, to be exact, which is the global average of emissions per year, per person from their food consumption. From farm to factory and fork to trash bin, food accounts for 10% of U.S. and 37% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
But it’s linked to ecological and humanitarian issues as well. Indonesian rainforests are demolished for commercial plantations, California schoolchildren share recess with pesticide clouds, and Syrian refugees toil on Turkish hazelnut farms with unsafe conditions and scanty pay. Plus, it affects everything from water consumption, chemical pollution, and biodiversity, to the earth’s ability to store carbon.
Clearly, what we eat matters. To boost our sustainable citizenship, then, we should reevaluate our shopping carts.
To understand what sustainable grocery shopping means, you can just as easily look to the definition of a sustainable diet. A 2012 report from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says a “sustainable diet” does the following:
Achieving these three pillars of sustainable eating starts with more sustainable grocery shopping—and requires a full rethink of how we select our food. For the aspiring climatarian, gone are the days of walking into a grocery store, picking the tastiest-looking stuff, and walking away. At its core, sustainable grocery shopping means paying attention to where our food comes from, and how it impacts the world during its journey from soil to dinner plate.
One of the most important things you can do for the environment is change your diet, and the food you pick at the grocery store can have a massive impact on both a global and local level.
For starters: reducing or cutting beef, lamb, and cheese massively decreases your diet’s GHG emissions. Or saving water-guzzling foods like almonds for a special treat (or cutting them out completely, if you’re able) can help areas like California and the Mediterranean combat climate-change-exacerbated droughts. And by eating locally and seasonally, we can limit transportation emissions, like those caused by flying January’s strawberries from Peru to New York.
You can also support small farms who practice sustainable values, like fair employment practices and agricultural practices that maintain local ecosystems. Similarly, buying certified fair trade, free range, organic and/or Rainforest Alliance foods supports the just treatment of humans, animals, and ecosystems. And when navigated wisely, choices good for the planet can also be good for our wallets.
While a “sustainable” diet is not automatically a healthy, inexpensive, or community-supportive one, choices that support one priority often support the others. Buying locally, for example, can lower food transportation emissions and support your local economy. And pulses like lentils, chickpeas, and black-eyed peas are sustainable, healthy, and affordable. Plus, reducing food waste and packaging saves money, because we aren’t paying for food we don’t eat or fancy labeling we don’t need.
Furthermore, eating green is increasingly a necessity. A 2014 University of Cambridge paper found that changes in demand as well as supply will be necessary to bring the food system in line with emissions targets—meaning we consumers need to change our habits as much as food producers must change theirs. And those changes to our demands start with eating less meat, especially beef and lamb.
Ready to revamp your grocery list? Read on for our top five tips.
Given that producing food comes with so many drawbacks, you'd think that we’d at least be efficient with it. Unfortunately, we’re not. We treat food as if it grew directly on grocery store shelves. The UN estimates that 31% of food produced worldwide is lost or wasted: 14% lost between harvest and retail, 11% wasted in households, 5% wasted in food service, and 2% wasted in retail. Together, that food comprises 38% of the global food system’s energy usage. In other words: food waste is a big deal.
U.S. numbers are even worse. According to the USDA, we waste 30% of our food at the retail and consumer levels. Some of the 30-40% of U.S. food that disappears between soil and stomach is not our fault. But a majority comes from consumer waste: the pot roast Tupperware that went moldy, the salad slimy from last night’s dressing, the birthday cake we toss so we don’t sneak a slice as a midnight snack.
If we Americans just consumed all the food we bought, we could cut emissions and environmental impacts by up to a third—pretty good, if you ask us. And unlike some other eco-friendly lifestyle changes, achieving this one might not be so hard. The BBC-recommended app Nosh, for example, offers an all-in-one tool to minimize your food waste. It helps you build a shopping list, track the use-by dates of your purchases, find recipes to use ingredients approaching expiration, and even connect with local vendors with a food surplus to sell at a discount.
What groceries you pick can help, too. In “9 Tips for Reducing Food Waste and Becoming a #ZeroHunger Hero,” the FAO recommends that shoppers buy only what they need (in other words, shop with a plan, and don’t shop hungry).
Also, show “ugly produce” some love—up to 40% of produce waste comes from grocery stores tossing perfectly good but cosmetically flawed fruits and vegetables. Next time you’re at the store, go for those misshapen carrots or yellower-than-usual Gala apples. Alternately, investigate startups like Imperfect Foods or Misfits Market, which connect eaters with organic, sustainably grown, ever-so-slightly irregular groceries delivered to your door, often with a discount to boot.
Similarly, another helpful app is Too Good to Go, which connects users with surplus food from local stores. Our favorite low-tech version of this strategy? Go to your favorite local bakery or coffee shop and hang out until closing time. Trust us, end-of-day croissants and baguettes are still delicious.
Once home, a couple other tips are key. If you do bring home a big market or bakery load, consider freezing what you won’t eat right away to prevent the heartache of strawberries or sweet treats going bad. And when organizing your fridge, adopt a “first in, first out” method–meaning the leftovers from tonight’s curry should go behind, not in front of, that pasta from Thursday. And if you’ve got vegetables that are still edible but past their peak prettiness? Beef up your next soup with some homemade stock, no beef required.
Recap: Tips to reduce food waste
From flatulence to forest destruction, air pollution to water pollution—mass cultivation of livestock is terrible for the environment. The Guardian summarizes all the facts and figures, but one of their interviewees, Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore, puts it pretty plainly: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.” Avoiding airplanes or going electric just cuts greenhouse gas emissions, the article says. Switching to a plant-based diet is far more comprehensive.
A plant-based diet takes the top slot—rather than, say, a vegetarian one—partly because cheese is a sneakily high source of GHG emissions. Also, dairy’s reliance on near-constantly lactating female cows leads to morally questionable practices like artificial insemination and killing male calves right after birth (often for disposal, not even consumption). Similarly, egg-laying hens are the source of some of the biggest antibiotic resistance concerns, not to mention ethical concerns including the pulverization of male chicks.
However, not all plant products are created equal. From water-guzzling almonds to plane-flown strawberries, many carry environmental issues of their own. But, as The Guardian summarizes from a 2019 Science article: “Even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.”
Can’t give up the summertime barbecue or the holiday roast? While it can be tempting to spiral into all or nothing rhetoric, partway measures can still make an impact. Perhaps limit yourself to meat one day a week, one weekend a month or, better still, only a few special occasions a year. Just, you know, try not to make that “day off” a ritual in which you stuff your face with bones at the local all-you-can-eat barbecue joint.
According to the FAO, livestock produce 14.5% of global anthropogenic GHG emissions annually. And while meat is often cited as a good source of protein, 1) animals are not the most emissions-efficient way to get that protein and 2) people with Western-style diets consume far more protein than we need, anyway. As our planet approaches eight billion people, we need to focus on ecologically efficient ways to get that growing population the protein they need to be healthy. To do so, the more we can substitute plant-based proteins for meat, the better.
But maybe you really can’t shake those pulled pork cravings (and don’t find barbecued jackfruit a suitable substitute). In that case, reducing your consumption of beef and lamb is still a big way to lower your climate impact.
Furthermore, the meat you choose matters. How an animal is raised and slaughtered carries environmental, ethical, and public health consequences. Within the animal realm, there are degrees of harm. Chickens produce fewer GHG emissions than beef or lamb but often suffer living conditions that are not only morally horrendous but threaten to unleash the next zoonotic superbug. (And we really, really don’t need another superbug.)
Grass-fed livestock (as some ranchers love to argue) could play a role in a healthy planetary future by producing food—whether meat or dairy—from the large swaths of earth’s surface that can’t support agriculture but can support animal grazing. And their manure could play a role in the nutrient cycling important to regenerative agriculture.
Whatever you buy—meat, eggs, dairy—look for labels that say free range and, where grazing animals are concerned, grass-fed. Certified Humane is a good indicator for ethics; regenerative agriculture is excellent for ecology. As always, supporting independently owned (and ideally local) producers both promotes good practices and avoids bad ones.
Plastic bags, and single-use plastic in general, are about as sustainable as taking a flight to nowhere because you miss airplanes. “Lightweight plastic bags use greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels, never biodegrade, and clog up the oceans,” says a New York Times article. Bringing your own bags is an easy way to cut back on this plastic usage.
That said, don’t go crazy. Reusable bags have their own problems. To reduce these side effects, opt for polyester or polypropylene totes over cotton (unless, of course, cotton is what you already have). Either way, less is more: it defeats the point to keep several dozen wadded in the corner, waiting for that improbable day you need them all at once.
Similarly, minimize packaging. Many grocery stores sell broccoli crowns wrapped in cellophane or teas where each individual bag is wrapped in foil. Try to avoid foods with superfluous waste. Even better, try packaging-free stores, where you fill your own bags or jars with the exact amount you need. Such unpackaged goods are often less expensive than similar quality packaged peers, as the producers don’t need to spend money on things like labeling and marketing.
With both initiatives, stay focused on the big picture. Forgetting reusable bags or mason jars on one grocery trip is not the end of the world. Your (or your friend’s) dog needs plastic bags for their next walk, anyway.
While supporting local producers is not the only answer, sustainable grocery shopping is undoubtedly part of the solution. Venues like farmer’s markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) give us the opportunity to “vote with our wallet” by investing in farms that respect their environment and their workforce. Additionally, local producers give back to the community, whether through jobs, taxes, education, or autumn apple-picking. After all, the fragility and primacy of our food systems hits home hardest when we see the plants—bugs and dirt and all.
That said, sustainable producers can be worth supporting even if they are a flight away. Coffee and cocoa—both crops that are beset with human rights abuses and environmental damage—are particularly important to source from Fair Trade-certified (or higher) organizations, ideally cooperatives, that you trust.
Similarly, organic (or agro-ecological) agriculture is essential, especially for foods that aren’t local. Organic agriculture reduces emissions, improves soil health, fights droughts and floods, and sequesters carbon in the soil. But, as Diet for a Hot Planet author Anna Lappé reminds us in a New York Times piece, that’s not all: “These farming approaches also protect farmers, workers and eaters from brain-damaging, cancer-causing, infertility-inducing pesticides, and they promote the biodiversity and insect health essential for food security, and, heck, planetary survival.” That’s worth a few extra dollars, if your bank account allows.
Before we discuss our top sustainable foods, it’s worth discussing some unsustainable ones whose issues don’t neatly fit in the sections above. Besides animal products, especially beef and lamb, there are other “problem children” we should eat only occasionally or choose carefully.
Take nuts: almonds, while nutrient-dense and low in GHG emissions, absolutely guzzle water. And California, the Mediterranean, and other warm, sunny regions where they grow well are facing an ever-increasing likelihood of drought that makes the mass cultivation of these beautiful trees untenable.
Additionally, cashews, though not requiring quite as much water as almonds, are frequently linked to human rights issues. Instead, opt for walnuts or peanuts which are both nutritious and considered to be more sustainably produced.
Another common issue is rainforest clearance, particularly in the context of palm oil production. Plantations in parts of the world like Brazil or Indonesia clear tropical forests to raise soya, palm oil, or livestock, which threatens both biodiversity and the ability of forests to act as a carbon sink. To combat this issue, we can support brands certified to source from farms and/or regions without these harmful practices. (Although be warned, certifications sometimes aren’t as thorough as they may seem.)
Need a little help? The BBC recommends barcode-scanning apps like OpenLabel, HowGood, and Giki for a product’s organic, fair-trade, and palm oil status generally and Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping Guide and Palm Oil Scanner to check palm oil specifically.
Fish is a similar minefield. According to the UNCTD and FAO, “nearly 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.” When fishing boats need to go further and further out to sea, their engines release enough emissions to make their catch a less climate-friendly option than chicken or pork. Plus, deep-sea trawling involves the collateral damage of bycatch.
And while fish farming doesn’t count dolphins among its impacted parties, it is rampant with issues including eutrophication, potential for zoonotic diseases, and ethical concerns. We’re not saying avoid fish altogether, but, like anything on your sustainable grocery list, the process of how it gets to you matters.
While still associated with some ethical concerns, bison are also associated with lower carbon emissions and healthier ecosystems. Having evolved naturally with the Western U.S. prairie, their bite actually encourages local grasses to regrow rather than damaging them. Look for pasture-raised, ethically-sourced bison meat to maximize their potential to help the environment and Native sovereignty alike. If you can't buy it at your local farmer's market, try buying online from Native-owned ranches. Just make sure it ships by truck, not air.
Crunchy, crispy, or chewy, insects are integral to our world's protein future. This NYT Opinion video says that insects are key to future food security for three key reasons.
But of course, to be viable, insects need to taste great, too. Entomo Farms, one trailblazer, is bringing crickets (rebranded “land shrimp” by some insect advocates) to North American markets. Check out their current products, including protein powder and snack puffs as well as flavored whole roasted bugs, as well as recipes from crepes to BBQ marinade to matzo ball soup.
If we want to avoid fish farming’s antibiotic dependence or deep-sea trawling’s emissions and bycatch, looking for wild, line-caught fish can help. But the biggest changes we can make for more sustainable seafood consumption (which can go hand in hand) are 1) expanding the list of species we are willing to eat and 2) looking local.
There are more fish in the sea than just tuna and salmon! And despite the prevalence of overfishing, a full 7% of marine stock is underfished. To find responsibly sourced seafood, the BBC recommends the UK Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide app, while Seafood Watch is a solid choice in the U.S. The HuffPost has a good list of less popular, but highly sustainable fish to try, including butterfish, scup, and sea robin.
Lentils are an inexpensive nutritional powerhouse that grow well in dry climates without chemical fertilizer and, thanks to their nitrogen-fixing abilities, restore nutrients to the soil where they grow. This panoply of positives means that lentils (and other pulses, from chickpeas to black-eyed peas to the fun-to-pronounce gog magog) score well on sustainability metrics from low GHG emissions, chemical pollutants, and water usage to high affordability (pardon the pun, but they’re near dirt cheap) and accessibility (the range of pulses all over the world means it’s feasible to find a pulse, even if not lentils, grown local to you).
These protein and fiber-packed pods are good for more than just your heart. They fix nitrogen, which means they add essential nutrients back to the soil without the need for chemical fertilizer. Planting beans and other nitrogen-fixing crops (like, as George Washington Carver made famous, peanuts) can restore to the soil what nutrient-hungry plants have gobbled away.
High in fiber and protein, low on cost, chickpeas also boast nitrogen fixation and relatively low water requirements.
As the Washington Post opines, oats are simple, healthy, delicious, and friendly to the environment and your wallet alike. And if you're still stuck on those apple-and-cinnamon instant packs, check out these holiday-brunch-worthy Baked Oatmeal with Berries and Almonds or Spiced Irish Oatmeal with Cream and Crunchy Sugar. If you're after less cream and more creativity, the Oatmeal Artist offers a plethora of easy recipes with flavors from gingerbread banana to blueberry pie.
Healthy, abundant, flexible, seaweed grows in many climates globally and is a minimum-impact, high-nutrition vegetable that deserves more space on your plate.
Ever eaten purple carrots? Your way-back relatives most likely did. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are loosely defined as varieties over fifty years old with traits absent in today’s established mass-market varieties. These traits can range from the amazing flavor that makes you look forward to farmer’s market tomatoes all year long to the ability to thrive in warmer temperatures or with less water—in other words, traits essential to our future food security as well as delightful to our taste buds.
Despite their importance, we’ve lost more than 90% of these varieties in the past century. As Mother Jones’ “The Retrovore’s Dilemma” says, “Today, four giant suppliers (Monsanto, Syngenta, Limagrain, and DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred) control more than half the seed market. Because they engineer seeds for uniformity, the gene pool has shrunk considerably. This means pests or disease can easily wipe out a crop, leaving no backup variety. Plus, hybrid plants’ lack of adaptability may make them more susceptible to the impacts of climate change.”
While the process of saving these historic seeds is something for farmers or gardeners, not grocery shoppers, we can create demand for these often-a-hassle-to-grow varieties by seeking them out at farmer’s markets. And given that, thanks to their amazing memory, these seeds can actually adapt to the environment in which they are planted, many will intensely vary regionally as well as seasonally. So they’re another reason to shop local!
Want to learn more? Check out these articles, books, and resources about how food, climate, and our living systems intersect.
While the impact of any individual’s diet is crumb-sized, our collective eating habits shape everything from climate emissions to environmental justice. That said, what we eat is just one piece of the puzzle. The fact that food constitutes roughly a third of global climate emissions means that a full two thirds of our necessary change must come from elsewhere.
If we want to rescue our planet’s current inhabitants (well, besides the cockroaches, they’ll survive anything), reforming our diets alone is not enough. We need a complete overhaul of our production and consumption habits, and a big part of that is energy. In 2019, for example, 74% of U.S. anthropogenic (originating from human activity) GHG emissions came from fossil fuels—a number that includes energy used to sow, reap, process, and transport food products. We need to shift to clean, renewable energy, especially in the food sector, and quickly.
And just as accessibility, affordability, and fairness is important when defining what makes food sustainable, those principles must be held integral to our energy transition as well. That’s why at Perch Energy, we're on a mission to make clean energy options more accessible, more affordable, and more equitable for all.
After you've mastered sustainable grocery shopping, check out our guide to sustainable fashion and how to make ethical wardrobe decisions that don't harm our planet, or our guide to sustainable travel and how to not wreck the places you visit.