New Year's Resolutions: Better Your Health and the Planet's
by Danielle Masterson
Every winter we welcome in the New Year to the tune of resolutions big and small. This year I'm going to lose the extra weight...This year I'm going to eat better...This year...will be different.
But what if improving your health could improve the health of the environment? With motivation staring you in the face everywhere a flower grows and a bird sings, how could you falter?
The decisions that you make in the coming year that affect your health will also affect the health of the planet. Every choice we make causes a ripple that emanates through the people, the places and the ecosystems linked to the products we consume. This "ecological footprint" is the amount of land and water it takes to produce our daily needs and to absorb our wastes. One of the easiest resolutions you can make this winter to help reduce your eco-footprint is to change your eating habits. Below is a little food for thought.
Oil on Your Plate
Though it doesn't sound appetizing, the foods you consume, whether greens, meat or dairy, require fossil fuels to produce. Every step of food production incurs an energy cost, from chemical fertilizers and animal feed to transportation and manufacture. According to the October 2005 The Ecologist, it takes 400 gallons of oil to feed the average American each year, nearly a third of which is used to produce chemical fertilizers. Meat requires the greatest amount of energy resources, and our yearly consumption of meat is growing. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that by 2020 people in industrialized countries will consume nearly 90 kg of meat a year, equivalent to a side of beef, 50 chickens and one pig. Now consider this: Producing one calorie of beef takes 33 percent more fossil fuel energy than producing one calorie of potatoes. Comparing energy inputs of meat and potatoes may seem like comparing apples and oranges. However, depending on how crops are grown, they too require varying energy inputs. According to a 22-year farming trial study by Cornell University published in the July 2005 Bioscience, conventionally grown crops required approximately 30 percent more fossil fuels than their organically grown brethren, as well more waterâ€¹two reasons, in addition to the lack of pesticides, to put organic produce at the top of your grocery list.
Land and Water
We've all got our vices, and yours may be a dripping hamburger. But look beyond your local fast-food joint, and you'll see that beef is being sourced increasingly from Latin American countries like Brazil. According to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Brazil's cattle industry is largely driven by exports, 80 percent of which came from the Amazon. In 1995 Brazil exported less than $500 million of beef. According to the USDA, Brazil exported $1.5 billion by 2003, three times as much. Unfortunately, in order to make room for large scale cattle operations, rain forests are being cut back at an alarming rate. According CIFOR, an area twice the size of Portugal was lost between 1990 and 2000, mostly to pasture.
Not only that, according to the Worldwatch Institute, eight ounces of beef requires 25,000 liters of water to produce. This doesn't mean you have to give up on meat, but when you do eat steak or hamburger, go for organically-raised beef from the United States.
Globally, small farms are being pushed to the wayside by large, corporate-owned "factory" farms. These farms have a reputation for deplorable living conditions for livestock. In fact, factory farms add antibiotics to the feed given to livestock in order to stave off diseases that often run rampant through their cramped quarters. The Worldwatch Institute notes that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to factory farmed livestock, or eight times (by volume) the antibiotics consumed by Americans themselves.
Much of our large scale monoculture crops like soy and corn are also used to feed factory farmed livestock. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 70 percent of corn produced in the United States is used to feed livestock, and worldwide nearly 80 percent of soybeans produced are used to feed livestock. The institute also notes a diet that is rich in factory farmed or "grain-fed" livestock can require two to four times as much land as a vegetarian diet. To make matters worse, animals raised in feedlots accumulate omega-6 fatty acids, which Americans consume in too great amounts already, increasing their risk for heart disease and cancer.
Environmental pollutants like PCBs, dioxins and DDT are incorporated into the biomass of living plants and animals. As you move up the food chain, the concentration of these chemicals increases. The FDA warns women who are or could become pregnant to watch their fish intake, cautioning that large predatory fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish should not be consumed by mothers to be or by young children. To find low-mercury fish from healthy fisheries, see The Green Guide's Smart Shopper's Fish Picks card.
Processing foods requires spending excess energy on things like packaging and additional transport and manufacturing processes. For instance, a one-pound box of cereal requires nearly seven times as many kilocalories of energy to produce than it provides as food. And as incomes increase, people are more likely to eat prepared and packaged foods, putting a greater drain on natural resources in both developing and industrial nations. There are a number of preservatives, colorants and additives in processed foods that are both unnecessary and unhealthy, but first among them are salt and sugar, of which Americans consume too much and which can lead to obesity and high blood pressure. Intriguing research completed by the University of Liverpool suggests that some additives (specifically monosodium glutamate and brilliant blue food coloring or aspartame and quinoline yellow), when combined in foods, can interfere with the development of the nervous system. When shopping, go for whole foods and skip the items in boxes and cans with ingredients that belong on chemists shelves and not on your dinner plate. Healthy Resolutions
Try eating lower on the food chain. The greater the biomass of the animal consumed, the greater the environmental impact of food production. The Federal Food Pyramid recommends eating nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily, so mix them in with your regular foods (for example, add broccoli to casseroles and have cereal with fruit). This reduces the amount of land, water, and oil required for each of your meals. (See also, "Lean and Green")
Limiting your intake of meat, while seeking out organic beef and poultry for meat-based meals, is another option. Organic livestock cannot be fed antibiotics or live under factory farm conditions. Don't let the task of finding organic products intimidate you. The Eat Well Guide
) provides a state by state directory of farms, stores and online sources for organic food.
Eat more locally produced foods. By joining a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, you can be assured that your veggies have not made a long, oil guzzling cross-country journey to reach your salad bowl. Plus you'll be supporting the local economy and small farms. A CSA directory is available at www.localharvest.org/csa
Eat fewer processed foods. Time is a precious commodity, but so is your health. Need something quick? Try fresh organic fruits, veggies or nuts instead of that breakfast bar or bag of chips. And get at least three ounces daily of whole grains for the fiber.
Rather than drink bottled water, drink tap water, filtered if necessary. Costing up to 10,000 times the price of tap water, bottled water comes with no guarantees that it will be safer than, or even any different from, municipal supplies. Resolve to get involved with local watershed protection groups to keep the source of your tap water clean. Other resolutions to reduce your eco-footprint:
Pledge to drive less. Try carpooling or using public transportation instead. Public transportation uses about half the fuel consumed by cars, trucks and light SUVs, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Walk or bike to work at least once per week and play outside with your children at least twice per week. With 64 percent of American adults overweight, our weight problems are directly influenced by the amount of time we spend in our cars and, crucially, by how much exercise we get as children. Now that 15 percent of American children are overweight or obese--putting them at risk for heart disease and diabetes--it's more important than ever to get them active. And don't forget climate change: Cars account for 21 percent of the world's global warming emissions.
Planning to buy a new car in the coming year? Hybrids are a great way to cut down your gas consumption. Among the most fuel-efficient are the Toyota Prius, which gets 60 mpg city/51 hwy or $800 est. annual fuel costs, the Honda Civic Hybrid (47 city/48 hwy, $936 annually), and the Ford Escape Hybrid (36 city/31 hwy, $1332 annually).
Take things down a notch. Keep an eye on heating costs by turning down your thermostat, saving yourself five percent on heating costs for every degree lower between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit â‚¬ Install energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, such as those made by General Electric, Duro-Test Lighting or Phillips. If every U.S. household replaced five bulbs, it would prevent the release of as much greenhouse gas as removing eight million cars from the road for a year.
Cut down on your water consumption. Install low-flow shower heads: Not only will they cut your water usage by 20,000 gallons per year, but they'll save you 10 to 16 percent of your water heating costs. Need a little convincing or maybe a little New Year's motivation? Calculate your eco-footprint with Earth Day Network's and Redefining Progress's footprint quiz (www.myfootprint.org