In honor of Earth Day this week, let’s talk about food and the environment. The environment and food. Whether we like to admit it or not, our food choices have a massive and direct impact on the health of our planet.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past decade, you’ve likely heard in some way shape or form that going vegan will help save the planet. To me, the push towards veganism seems to be everywhere, from gut-wrenching documentaries like Cowspiracy to celebrity role models like Brad Pitt and Russell Brand to new trendy faux meat products like the Beyond Meat “burger.”  And while it’s true industrial animal factory farming (which utilizes a system called confined animal feeding operations) is both inhumane and environmentally negligent, going vegan is not the only way to help save the planet (enter sigh of relief from all my meat loving friends out there!) 

In fact, I would argue that going vegan does not in and of itself ensure you are being environmentally responsible with your food choices. Why? The sad fact of the matter is our current food system is rife with irresponsible practices meant to feed the masses as cheaply and efficiently as possible, regardless of the environmental damage. Excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and other toxic chemicals kill wildlife and pollute our water supply, even causing massive dead zones in coastal waters. Further, industrial farming depletes the soil of carbon stores and micronutrients, in turn reducing nutrient quality of plants and the soil’s ability to retain water. Thus, not only does Industrial agriculture require massive amounts petroleum (to harvest, sort, pack, and transport food), but it also requires more water than would an alternative agricultural system. So while industrial animal agriculture is definitely an environmentally irresponsible practice, environmental issues with our current food system branch way beyond industrial animal agriculture as well. 

For more on the problems in our agricultural system, check out this article.

So what can be done?

Making changes to the way we eat is one of the best things we can do to help the environment. These changes don’t have to happen all at once, nor do they need to be drastic. Every decision, no matter how big or small, we make about our food is an opportunity to support an agricultural system that sustains rather than degrades our environment.

Ditch the processed crap.

Highly processed foods more often than not are made from cheap industrial crops. Wheat, corn, and soy are top offenders. Start by phasing out processed foods in favor of whole foods or, if you must have pre-packaged convenience foods, opt for items with short ingredient lists of ingredients you recognize and can pronounce. 

Eat less meat.

Here’s the deal with meat. It’s always good to eat less meat from the industrial system (i.e. from animals raised in factory farms). In fact, the ideal would be not to eat ANY meat (or animal products) from this system at all. But this doesn’t mean meat is off limits. Animals raised on small regenerative farms are not only treated far more humanely, but this sort of farming system actually improves soil quality and sequesters carbon back into the earth. Meat and animal products from small regenerative farms are often significantly more expensive than meat from factory farmed animals, however, so the best solution is to budget for high quality meat and eat less of it. Think of a serving of meat as 3-4 ounces and aim to keep the bulk of your meal plants.

Support “beyond organic” regenerative agriculture. 

Consider shopping at the farmers markets (where you can easily ask farmers about how they grow their crops or raise their animals) or joining a CSA for any variety of products from fruits and veggies, to honey and flowers, to meat, eggs, and cheese.

Eat seasonally and locally. 

Seasonal local food is not only more nutritious, it is easier to grow and therefore requires less harmful pesticides. Additionally, seasonal local food cuts down on carbon emissions because it does not need to be transported or stored like non-local, out of season options.

Grow your own food,

Even if it’s just a small garden or a couple herbs in your window sill, growing your own food can be a great way to ensure you are eating food that is seasonal, local, and grown without pesticides or other harmful chemicals.