How Our Food Choices Impact the Environment

Humans make choices every day that impact the environment, whether we know it or not. Deciding between driving to work or commuting by public transportation, taking five seconds out of your day to throw a wrapper in the correct bin, or even placing a clothing order that’s been sitting in your shopping cart for a couple of days. It may not be outwardly obvious, but through chain reactions and smaller activities that contribute to a larger effect, our individual actions make a larger impact than we may expect.

A considerable part of people’s lives revolves around food. Meals, snacks – the smell of fries as you walk through a dining hall. It’s no secret that food influences the environment around us. We’ve touched upon the benefits of promoting sustainability in restaurants and grocery stores, but the connection between the food industry and our planet goes deeper than just recycling. We’ve highlighted the complex relationship between food and the environment below.

Agriculture and the Environment

When we order food at a restaurant or sit down for a home-cooked meal, it is easy to overlook where the spread came from. Agriculture is the science behind farming and the growing of crops, including raw materials that are incorporated into our everyday foods. Despite the delicious benefits that people reap from farming, the environment has suffered from industrial agriculture, specifically water and the air we breathe. 

In the United States, industrial agriculture is one of the leading causes of water pollution. Synthetic fertilizer for crops contains high levels of “nutrients,” such as phosphorus and nitrogen that promote plant growth. Excess fertilizer, once sprayed onto crops, typically leaks into the surface and groundwater, contaminating water with nitrate, which not only impacts our drinking water but also threatens aquatic life. This effect is called an agriculture runoff.  Other negative effects of industrial agriculture on water pollution include heavy metal contaminations and the creation of “dead zones,” which are aquatic areas that do not support marine life. 

agricultural runoff caused by synthetic fertilizer

In agricultural operations, crop-dusting, widespread pesticide application, and spraying fields with animal waste as fertilizer can harm air quality with concentrated doses of chemicals, such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Additionally, air emissions from livestock operations make up 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. So, what can consumers do to ensure that they’re supporting the right farms and businesses when it comes to food? 

Our tips include:

  • Shop for meat at smaller/local farms, which generally have less of a negative impact on air quality. 
  • Seek out the Animal Welfare Approved label on products 
  • When dining out, look for local, seasonal, and organic menu items, if possible. These are typically grown from nearby farms which often use agricultural methods that can be less damaging to water and air quality.  
The Food System and Climate Change

Agriculture can lead to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that contribute to climate change, but it goes beyond that. Agriculture is a major factor in deforestation. In fact, it’s been estimated that agriculture is responsible for 75 percent of global deforestation. How does deforestation affect the environment and climate? When many trees are cut down at one time, it can damage the water cycle in a specific climate, resulting in local climate change. Additionally, when forests are burned down for farming or agricultural purposes, more carbon is released into the atmosphere, which can impact climate change on a local and global level. 

The irony is that as industrial agriculture and certain farming styles contribute to climate change, this in turn also causes many damages to crops and animal agriculture as well. As temperatures rise and precipitation patterns sporadically change, crop productivity will fluctuate, and more often than not, productivity will decrease. With extreme precipitation, farmers are unable to control water systems, and soil erosion becomes a pressing issue. At the other end of the spectrum, droughts in some areas can damage not only crops but also human and animal wellness. Warmer climates create a more inhabitable environment for pests, which is a threat to growing crops.

Similar to humans, extreme temperature changes can affect animal health. For example, drastic temperature fluctuation can lead to pest infestations that may target certain species’ food or even latch onto animals’ bodies. Climate change can cause serious damage to the food system as a whole, which is why it is so important to evaluate the impacts of human behavior – from the individual to the industry level.  

climate change can cause decrease in health
Food Packaging and Waste: The Environmental Impact

We’ve briefly covered the dangers of plastic food packaging and food waste in QSRs as well as grocery stores in previous articles, but how does this affect the environment outside of those settings? Most food packaging has been designed as single-use only and then thrown away after. In a recent article, we wrote about TIPA, a woman-led compostable packaging company. However, most packaging isn’t made to be recycled, and even if it is, consumers may neglect how important it is to do so. Packaging that is littered and not properly disposed of ends up in our waterways, which is harmful to humans and animal life.

Food packaging isn’t just harmful at the end of its life cycle –the beginning steps of production also cause harm to air and water. For example, in aluminum production, the energy-intensive process uses large amounts of water and creates a toxic “slime” that may contain radioactive elements or heavy metals. This type of production also emits greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide, dust, and even more. There are similar environmental consequences in the production of glass, paper, and plastic.

Recycling continues to be a focus area for protecting the environment on an individual level. Taking one minute out of your day to properly dispose of packaging and waste is a small step in the right direction. Did you know that plastic takes 450 years to biodegrade? It may not seem like much, but that one plastic water bottle could be reused for something even greater in the future if it’s placed in the right bin.

Consciousness is Key

What’s on my plate? How did it get there? Asking these types of questions can help us become more mindful of the environmental impacts of our meals, as well as health considerations. It may seem tedious to research how your meal ended up at your dinner table, but being knowledgeable is just the first drop in the ocean. While it can be daunting to determine how we can help curb climate change, these are simple steps we can take together for a healthier and safer future.