Planet-friendly foods for a sustainable diet
Sadly, some foods have a devastating impact on the environment. Here, we explore the fruits, vegetables and other foods that have the smallest environmental footprints.
As far as sustainability goes, not all foods are created equally. Some of the foods we eat can have a devastating impact on climate change, which makes it important to make informed choices when it comes to consuming foods which are not only good for you, but good for the environment.
Globally, we rely on a small range of food, and monoculture farming (repeated harvesting of a single crop) is rife, with approximately 75 per cent of global food supply coming from only 12 plant and five animal species. In order to protect the planet, it’s essential to diversify and eat a variety of foods in our diet.
The first step to ensuring our diet has minimal impact on the environment is to shop smart. This involves knowing where your food comes from and eating locally, seasonally and consciously whenever possible. Local food is generally fresher since it has lower food miles, which helps minimise damaging fossil fuels and packaging used in transport. As far as fruit and vegetables are concerned, organic food is usually the best option since it reduces the amount of synthetic pesticides, chemicals and herbicides used on the plants and soil. It’s recommended to limit refined grains and processed foods as much as possible and opt for more plant-based foods and whole grains.
So which fruits, vegetables and other foods have the smallest environmental footprints?
Lentils are one of nature’s superfoods and one of the most climate-friendly proteins going around, since they have a low-carbon footprint (approximately 43 times less than beef) and need very little water to grow. Not only do they have a small water footprint, lentils have the added benefit of helping to fortify and enrich the soil which in turn helps other crops to grow. Lentils are also packed full of nutrients, protein, fibre and carbohydrates. They are a great choice for vegetarians and vegans since they are a very affordable and sustainable source of protein. There are dozens of varieties of lentils available with different flavour profiles, so mix it up and find the one that is right for you and your cooking.
Beans and pulses
No wonder this food group is called “environmental superheroes”! With a low-carbon and water footprint, beans and pulses are also bursting with nutrients including fibre, protein and B vitamins. They are known as “nitrogen fixers”, that take nitrogen from the environment and convert it into ammonia (NH3), which subsequently enriches the soil and can be readily used for other plants and organisms to grow. Think beyond red kidney beans and add a variety of beans and pulses to your diet, including lesser-known varieties such as fava beans, bambara beans, cowpeas, lentils, mung beans and soybeans.
Similar to beans and other pulses, peas are also a “nitrogen fixer” and naturally fix nitrogen into the soil so there is no need for a synthetic fertiliser. Green peas are more likely to thrive in cooler environments so are not water-intensive.
Algae are critical to our sustainable existence and marine ecosystems since they are responsible for approximately half of the oxygen production on Earth. They are nutrient-rich, containing high levels of essential fatty acids, protein and antioxidants. Since they are rich in protein, they are also a great sustainable alternative for vegetarians. Algae can also be harvested all year round without the use of fertilisers and pesticides and are fast growers. For example, the deep-green coloured algae wakame grows rapidly while supporting the water’s biological balance.
Thriving in a wide range of different soil types, hemp doesn’t require any fertilisers or pesticides to flourish. Since it is a weed, it grows fast with little water and also grows very tightly spaced which decreases land use. Hemp produces more pulp per acre than tree. Hemp is also biodegradable and returns nutrients to the soil since it sequesters carbon (locks CO2 into the soil and makes it safe). It’s also high in essential fatty acids and vitamins and is a great protein source.
Cereals and grains
Cereals and grains have been one of the most important sources of food for human consumption for thousands of years. But it’s important to think beyond rice and consider different cereals and grains to add to your weekly meal plan, for example amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa and teff. These grains are likely to require less intensive agricultural inputs and use minimal amounts of water in production. By eating a broader range of cereals and grains, consumers can help promote biodiversity, bringing great benefits to the environment and the health of our overall ecosystem.
Amaranth, one of the oldest crops used by the Aztecs and Incas, is a fibre-rich grain which, like rice, is prepared in boiling water. Since it can be grown at any elevation without needing a lot of water, it is extremely versatile and is a great crop in areas which suffer water scarcity. It is nutrient-rich, particularly high in magnesium and protein and has a mild nutty taste. Buckwheat is also particularly drought-resistant, and since it is wheat- and gluten-free, it’s a great alternative to rice and flour.
Leafy green vegetables are low-impact and usually grow fast in most climates, making them one of the most versatile foods out there. Since most leafy greens are available worldwide, they usually generate few food miles.
To be even more sustainable, try growing them in your own backyard or local community garden. If this isn’t an option and you have to buy them at your local market, opt for greens with no or minimal packaging. Get beyond kale and spinach and try beet greens, broccoli, moringa, buk choy, pumpkin leaves, red cabbage and watercress.
Okra is also one of the most eco-friendly vegetables in the world and is well suited to climate changes. It grows well in warm environments since it is heat- and drought-resistant. The okra plants grow rapidly and are ready to harvest in 11–14 weeks. Okra offers consumers a wide range of nutritional benefits as it is full of vitamins, minerals, fibre, B vitamins and antioxidants.
If you’re a seafood lover, swap farmed salmon for mussels. Mussels are the most sustainable farmed species since they are filter feeders and require no food inputs and produce minimal outputs like surplus feed and effluent. Mussels are clever little creatures and extract carbon to make their shells, helping to filter and clean the water in the process. The harvesting process is also sustainable and does not damage the ocean bed.
Tomatoes are one of the most sustainable fruits since they are not water-intensive. They are also incredibly versatile and take up little space, so are easy to grow in your own backyard. Tomatoes have a deep root system that absorbs moisture from deep in the soil.
Potatoes are also a very water-efficient crop and produce natural pesticides and fungicides that reduce the need for synthetic chemicals. They also have the added benefit of keeping fresher for longer, and can be stored for long periods of time without going bad.
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