Climate change is messing with your food. Here's how you can bite back.
All of that extra CO2 we're putting into the air is making plants grow really fast and forcing them to turn that carbon into sugary carbs and fibers instead of healthy vitamins and minerals. While a little bit of extra CO2 can help plants grow faster, too much zaps the nutrients out of healthy leafy greens, high protein rice, and vitamin-packed fruits. How? Plants need time to grow and build up healthy minerals and nutrients.
Too much CO2 too fast forces them to carb load. The same happens when it gets too warm and dry. When temps go up a little or plants get a little less water, fruits and vegetables stress out and build up their defenses with nutrients and vitamins. But, places like Iowa where a lot of corn and soybeans are grown are getting way too dry, and other places like Florida, a major source of oranges and other fruits and veggies, are getting too wet. For us, that means corn and soybeans will have more sugar and less protein, and those oranges will have more sugar and less Vitamin C and antioxidants. All of that extra heat and rain also weakens plant defenses, making them more susceptible to disease and disruption. On top of all that, hurricanes, wildfires, and pests made worse by climate change have been destroying entire fields of crops in recent years, and that's made healthy options more expensive for you and your family.
But, you don't have to just sit back and take it. Here are some ways you can get the most nutritious bang for your buck AND fight climate change at the same time:
1) Buy Organic When Possible
You might know that organic has no harmful pesticide residues, which is good for your health, but did you know that buying organic is also healthy for the planet? Organic farming practices keep soil healthier and turn the ground into nutrient factories that absorb water and carbon by reusing all of the parts of the plants we can't eat. All of that good nutrition gets absorbed by plants and ends up in the fruits and vegetables we eat. Sustainable farming avoids using man-made fertilizers and pesticides that kill natural organisms like bees, worms, and good bacteria that keep the soil healthy. Sustainable farming also reduces toxic runoff farther downstream, like the kind that has created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and killed off shrimp and fish populations. The bottomline is buying organic means healthier food on our plate and a lower carbon footprint for our planet.
Check out our post What Does Organic Really Mean? to help make sense of the organic labels and check out our favorite tip for how to prioritize organic produce to help you pick pesticide-free fruits and vegetables.
2) Buy Local
What if there was a way to fight climate change, eat more nutritious and tastier food, while also saving money? Buying local seasonal items is this magical triple win! Buying local has a lower carbon footprint than foods that traveled by ship, train, or truck to get to your plate. And local produce is also packed with more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients than fruits and vegetables that were picked weeks ago and had to travel to get to you. Once picked off a tree, vine, or out of the ground, fruits and vegetables can't get more vitamins and minerals from the soil and the nutrients start to break down soon after. Produce that is imported is often picked before it is ripe so that it doesn't spoil by the time customers buy it. To ripen produce when it gets to the shelves, grocers often treat them with ethylene. While ethylene is not toxic (fruits and vegetables produce them naturally as they ripen), the commercial ethylene gas that grocers use is made from fossil fuels like methane and crude oil, most often extracted by fracking methods that are harmful to health and the environment.
CSA's (community supported agriculture), co-op's (cooperatively-owned grocer or agriculture) and farmers markets are a great way to find seasonal fruits and veggies delivered at peak nutrition. Many CSA's and co-ops are locally run by volunteers and use membership fees to offset costs. If you are concerned that these options may be out of your budget, some CSA's and co-ops offer income-based membership rates or have slots reserved for low-income or SNAP recipients. Hitting up farmers markets is a great way to get to know local small farmers and discover new varieties of vegetables that are in season. Gaining an organic certification can be expensive for small farmers, so even if they don't have an official seal, they may still grow foods organically. The best way to know is to ask and get to know your local farmers.
Check out this video, Food Revolution: CSA, Farmer's Market, or Co-op, to help you weigh the pros and cons of each local option.
3) Plant a Garden at Home
We all love a little more green in our lives - strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs grow well in containers, so whether you have a yard, balcony, or sunny windowsill – you can grow some of your own food. If you're feeling a bit adventurous, you can also try growing vegetables from scraps which will not only give you free veggies, but will help reduce plant waste. Before you start, we recommend testing for lead in your soil if you'll be planting in the ground. Pick up a soil test kit for lead online or at a local hardware or gardening store, and check out this guide on safe planting containers. Even growing a couple of herbs is an especially fun activity to do with kids and a great way to get them excited about healthy cooking and eating.
Check out Good Housekeeping's How to Start an Organic Garden in 9 Easy Steps and Mother Earth News: A Crop-by-Crop Guide to Growing Organic Vegetables and Fruits to help you pick some plants to get started.
4) Reduce Waste and Compost
According to the United Nations, 1/3 of all food produced around the world is wasted. From farm to landfill, when that food waste breaks down it produces as much greenhouse gas emissions as all of the cars, trucks, and buses traveling on roads around the world. Planning meals before shopping and using your produce efficiently can cut down on your food waste. If you're buying in bulk and in season, you can always freeze some for smoothies and soups later on and use scraps to make vegetable stock. For lots of great tips and for recipes to help you make the most of your produce, check out Food Waste Feast.
And, finally, compost what's left (or not edible) along with coffee grounds, eggshells, yard waste, and newspaper. Composting turns all of that waste into nutrient-rich soil for plants. You can compost at home or find a local drop-off site near you. Over 90 cities like Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., now offer curbside compost pick up along with other waste collection. New York City even uses food waste to create enough biogas to heat 5,200 homes and has reduced the city's annual greenhouse gas emissions by 90,000 tons. If your city or town doesn't offer compost collection, call them up and ask them to start! Here's a great guide from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance to help you make the case: Yes! In My Backyard: A Home Composting Guide for Local Government.
Yes, climate change is impacting our food, but we can all take steps along the way to fight climate change while making our food healthier.