Plant-Based Eating and the Impact on Global Food Systems
Nothing makes us feel more connected than when a global health crisis sparks on one continent and jumps to the next, and then the next, as fast as the one we are in. From China to Italy, Spain, the US and back to Asia, the coronavirus made us realize that what happens in one market around the world has real ramifications everywhere.
So it's no surprise that the health, ethical, and planetary effects of plant-based eating are being touted now. Consumers are beginning to come to terms with the full impact of our collective eating habits on the earth and the people around us. From our fashion choices, even"vegan" ones that end up creating more plastic waste to "superfoods" like almonds, that use more water than almost nearly any other plant on the planet, plant-based or vegan consumers are asking: What is truly sustainable? And how do our choices impact not just our own health but that of the planet and other human beings in communities far from our homes? Here are some simple ways to consider compassion and humanity along your mindful plant-based journey.
The global food system is one infrastructure
While consuming a plant-based diet is by-and-large better for our health and the environment, a sometimes overlooked element to consider is the human cost of our food choices. Do you know where your coconut oil comes from? Your quinoa? One of the most well-known cases of an over-consumed crop is the popularity of quinoa, which first helped support the farmers of Peru and then, when it took off as a "trendy" food five years ago, sent them into relative poverty when other countries began to produce it and take market share away from them.
Understanding the impact of your diet is the first step to consuming more mindfully. A simple Google search that includes “[BRAND] + ethics” or “[FOOD ITEM] + sustainability” is a great place to start. Another great place to start is through the quiz on foodprint.org, which estimates the carbon impact of your current diet. Try it.
Depending on the item it brings a range of results, for example, tortilla chips + sustainability gives you the results of a range of tortilla chip producers' sustainability mission while searching chocolate + sustainability brings about a bunch of articles about the cacao supply chain, which makes us think more about where our snacks and sweets come from.
To keep up with the latest agricultural news, peruse sites like Acres USA, Modern Farmer, Edible Magazine and Anthropocene Magazine (Anthropocene is a newly minted term that refers to our current industrial era, in which the changes on earth are driven by humans). All these are great ways to learn more about what's happening in the food supply chain.
Eat Local, Look for Fair Trade, and More Ways to Be Mindful
Keeping track of the most ethical foods is as daunting as the constant back and forth about what is healthy or not (such as the great coffee debate). There are a few simple guidelines to keep in mind that will help you be a more mindful consumer.
Your best bet is to eat local, seasonal foods that don't need to get put on a ship or plane to get to your door. Lowering our carbon footprint is beneficial to the most vulnerable populations, including people of color and working-class families, who are disproportionately affected by climate change. Eating locally grown food not only reduces carbon emissions but supports small farmers and the food usually delivers more nutrients because it's fresh. Find a CSA near you through LocalHarvest.org.
Efficient shipping options are easier than ever through aggregators like Thrive Market, Instacart, and Mercato that each finds the products you seek and delivers it from a variety of local vendors. These sites do the curation for you so you don’t have to drive around looking for plant-based foods. Imperfect Foods is a great option that helps reduce waste by shipping less-than-beautiful but perfectly edible produce that otherwise would have been thrown out.
Another possibility: grow your own! The US has seen a resurgence of Victory Gardens since the sheltering at home orders have gone national, and growing your greens is one way to reduce your reliance on traditional grocery stores. To get started here is a guide for indoor gardening, even in a tiny apartment or basement.
Take a Whole-System Approach
The journey to be a more ethical consumer goes beyond what we eat. In our globalized economy, many other systems play a part in our relationship to the world and people around us. When making buying decisions, plant-based consumers could consider the impact of the packaging our food comes in. Are your meal kits sent to you in low-waste packaging? Here is a master list of sustainable alternatives for common products.
Find a Helpful Resource
There are many organizations that do great work to help consumers make ethical consumption. Some of them include Fair Trade, Food Is Power, Equitable Food, and Fair Food Program. The Foodprint initiative has many useful resources for understanding the carbon impact of your diet and has a guide to sustainable food labels to look out for.
The Bottom Line
The good news? Adopting a plant-based diet does inherently have a net positive impact on the global food system. Eating local, seasonal foods, staying informed, and using your voice to amplify the rights of others are just a few ways to have a say in how your diet affects the earth. We’re all in it together.