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Living and Eating Eco-Friendly: A Checklist

Okay, the purple butterfly might be a little much, but I like the message, don’t you? As I continue to watch floods, tornadoes, and fires stampede across the country (sorry, but no one can convince me it’s not because of climate change and greenhouse gases), I know we can do better. We can conserve more, recycle more, live greener and with better intentions for the future of this ailing planet—at least I know I can. Want to join me?

DRINK TAP WATER Bottled water is no safer than tap water, and, in some cases, is more contaminated. If you need any convincing of this, see the movie “Tapped [2].” Here, some of the film’s major takeaways:

Filter your tap water Tap water may be the greener alternative, but groundwater still carries too many contaminants. It usually suffices to use a simple water filter, but since San Diego tap water is notorious for tasting like sea water, and a recent analysis of our water did not leave me feeling confident, I invested $250 in a reverse osmosis unit, which purifies water to a much greater extent. And yes, you can call me Heidi because I live in the Alps now!


EAT ORGANIC If you do nothing else, do this.

Organic food is what we are meant to be eating. It contains no preservatives, fertilizers, or pesticides. It is not genetically modified [6].* It has not been sterilized with radiation or ammonia. Organic food is highly regulated: organic farms are required to constantly test both their products for nutrients as well as their irrigation water (non-organic farms use “sewer water” that can contain biosolids like heavy metals, lawn pesticides, gas, detergents).

One criticism is that organic food can be more expensive than conventional food, but not always if you know how to shop:

[9]* Look for this label in the grocery store —> However, no food can be guaranteed 100% non-GMO. Our food system is far too infiltrated with genetically modified origins to completely eradicate it. Additionally, pesticide spraying in one field can carry in the wind and contaminate organic fields. However, organic food is a far better alternative and gives you a much greater chance of avoiding these DNA-altered ingredients that are pervasive in mainstream food.

EAT LOCAL Your food will be fresher, tastier, and full of more nutrients. You’ll drastically minimize your carbon footprint and you’ll be supporting local farmers. A friend who works on an organic farm refers to the “frozen Han Solo” effect of mass-produced tomatoes. They are picked unripe and green, essentially frozen in time, transported far far away, and then gassed with ethylene to turn them red and ripe-looking. Any surprise they have no taste? As Barry Estabrook, the author of the agricultural exposé Tomatoland [10], puts it, “Tomatoes are being bred for shipping, not taste.”

EAT IN SEASON This goes hand-in-hand with eating locally. Eating grapes in winter? They’re being flown in unripe from Chile. Pay attention to each season’s bounty and try to consume accordingly. Farmer’s markets are great signalers for this. They won’t be selling grapes in January!


EAT LESS RED MEAT Two words: climate change. Producing the annual beef consumption of the average American emits as much greenhouse gas as a car driven more than 1,800 miles [12]. One study goes so far as to say 50% of global greenhouse gases [13]is due to beef production. Another says it takes 12,000 gallons of water [14] to produce one pound of beef. Plus, it’s not just red meat: lamb, cheese, pork, and farmed salmon [15] also generate damaging amounts of greenhouse gases.

In terms of personal health, a 2009 National Cancer Institute study [16] of 500,000 Americans found that the people who ate the most red meat were 20 percent more likely to die of cancer and at least 27 percent more likely to die of heart disease than those who ate the least.

If you must buy red meat, buy it grass-fed or pasture-raised as these methods create less environmental harm [17]. And get on board with Meatless Mondays [18]! Your body will reward you for it. As they say, “Pay the farmer now or pay the hospital later.” Vegetables, legumes, organic poultry, sustainable seafood, pasta, fruit—there are endless alternatives to eating meat as often as we do.

BUY MILK rBGH- (or rBST-) FREE When buying cow’s milk, look for “organic” or “rBGH-free” on the label. Recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, is injected into conventional dairy cows in the United States yet banned by most first-world countries. Injections of antibiotics often follow since the rBGH, which boosts a cow’s milk production by just one extra gallon per day, also makes the animals sick. Consequently, girls are now getting their periods as early as 7 years of age and there is evidence the hormone contributes to the development of cancer. [19]

BE SELECTIVE ABOUT SEAFOOD Fish is a wonderful source of vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids, but dumping pollutants into our waters for decades has finally caught up with us. Large fish like tuna and swordfish carry high mercury levels, depleted populations and high global demand have spawned farmed fish systems that create bacteria and disease, GMO proponents are trying to push “Frankenfish [20]” unlabeled into our grocery stores. There is a lot of very bad seafood out there, and you simply must buy from a trusted fishmonger, not the teenager at your big-box store who could just as easily be working at Radio Shack.

It’s not just the ingredients themselves, it’s also the means by which your ingredients were acquired. When you purchase from a fair-trade organization, you’re participating in a business model that promises a fair price to the farmer, promotes sustainable farming practices, and contributes to positive change in small, often rural, and underprivileged communities.

DON’T OVER-BUY Americans throw away almost half of their food every year. We’re busy: we shop sporadically and buy in large quantities. But then we forget about it, we can’t eat it all, or we get spooked by the expiration date and throw it out. It’s fine to buy some products in bulk that can sit on the shelf for a while, like pasta [22] or olive oil [23], but try to buy fresh ingredients that you plan to use in the next day or two, and in appropriate quantities. Related tip: To save time in the kitchen and avoid wasting the large quantities you may end up buying sometimes, make a big batch of food and eat leftovers throughout the week. Share with co-workers or friends if you can’t finish it—people love free home-cooked food!

RECYCLE; BUY FOOD WITH LESS PACKAGING Buying food in its natural state (read: not processed) eliminates a good deal of packaging, which makes up 40% of the 1.4 billion pounds of waste we put in landfills every day. Bring your own containers or look for food in environmentally sensitive containers like recycled paper or bio-based plastic. No petroleum-based plastic and no Styrofoam. Progress on the horizon: the first zero-waste, package-free grocery store [24] in the U.S. is about to open in Austin, Texas.

GROW YOUR OWN FOOD AND COMPOST The carbon footprint of your own fruit and vegetables couldn’t be smaller than from your backyard to your kitchen table, and composting [25] turns your discarded organic matter into valuable fertilizer and keeps it out of waste processing plants. Live in an apartment with little or no outside space? Consult my friend Amy Pennington, creator of Go Go Green Garden [26] and author of “Apartment Gardening [27].” Related tip: Don’t dispose of excessive cooking oil or bacon fat in the sink. If you can’t compost it, put it in a sealed container, like an empty milk carton (preferably not plastic), and throw it in the garbage.

[28]NO MORE PLASTIC BAGS Keep multiple reusable
bags in the car. Seek out and reward stores with your patronage that give incentives: My local natural foods store gives me 5 cents off for every bag I bring, or I can donate it to one of four charities they work with. I even take a reusable bag with me when I go shopping at the mall. (Who needs another paper Nordstrom bag?) I also love these reusable produce bags [29].

ASK QUESTIONS Know your farmer, know your butcher, know your fishmonger. Ask them where their products come from and how they’re treated. If they stutter, time
to find a new purveyor. I had one butcher tell me “natural” beef is the same as “organic.” Buh-bye. Let them know you’re paying attention to what they’re selling.

Consumers have the power.
Demand the product you want.
Change the world one meal at a time.