From growing, packaging, and shipping of food products, to everyday food consumption, our food system has a huge impact on the environment. It is responsible for around one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (1), 70% of the world’s freshwater use (2) and uses 40% of the world’s habitable land (3,4).
In this article you will find 7 simple changes we can make in our food purchases and packaging choices to better the health of ourselves and our planet.
In a supply and demand food system, our choices as consumers can make a difference. When we become more aware of foods that are better for the environment, we can impact what we see on our grocery store shelves. Spoiler: what is good for our planet is also what is good for our health!
1. Choose Plant-Based More Often Than Animal-Based Foods
Increasing our intake of plant-based foods is considered one of the most effective, environmentally-friendly changes we can make. Plant-based foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Instead of using plants to feed the animals we use for food, eating these plant-based foods ourselves can greatly reduce the amount of resources needed to produce our food.
Compared to animal products, plant foods require less water to be produced. For example, it takes almost 15,400L of water to produce 1 kilogram of beef, versus 1,830L to produce a kilogram of wheat and only 822L for a kilogram of apples (5,6)
The WaterWeEat’s website has a great visual graph to understand the amount of water in a kilogram of beef.
Instead of going completely plant based, try adopting a “flexitarian” approach. This means eating mainly plant-based foods, with occasional or smaller amounts of animal-based foods. Some ideas for this include:
- Eating only plant-based foods one day a week (like “Meatless Mondays”)
- Eating plant-based at home and allowing yourself to eat animal-based foods when away from home. This is what I opt to do personally, and I don’t feel limited when eating out or visiting others. I can thus enjoy whatever food is provided without worrying about not having options or having to bring my own food.
2. Know When to Choose Organic
A food that is organic means that the agricultural processes involved in producing the food meet certain criteria, including using less pesticide and preserving biodiversity (7,8). On the other hand, industrial agriculture (non-organic) has a large focus on maximizing the yield of crops, usually at the expense of the environment and by using large amounts of pesticides (9).
The “Dirty Dozen” is a list generated and published by the Environmental Working Group of 12 fruits and vegetables that have the highest levels of pesticide residues. Strawberries, spinach and apples are near the top of the list. Buying these foods organic can be a good place to start.
Find the list to the “Dirty Dozen” at this link here.
Similarly, the “Clean Fifteen” is a list of fruits and vegetables that have lower levels of pesticides. These include many fruits and vegetables that needs to be peeled before being eaten, like avocados, sweet corn and onions.
Find the list to the “Clean Fifteen” list on the EWG.org website at this link here.
One of the main downsides to eating organic is the higher cost. You don’t need to switch completely to eating organic but choosing one or two foods to buy organic can help.
A simple tip to think about buying organic, is that if you eat the skin of the fruit or vegetable, it is better to choose organic; whereas fruits and vegetables that you peel will have lower pesticide residues and non-organic can be a good option.
Although pesticides used for food are highly monitored by Health Canada to ensure any residue is safe for human consumption (10), it is still very important to wash all produce before you eat it.
3. Eat Local
Around 11% of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated from food transportation (11). Eating locally can help to reduce the amount of resources used in bringing our food to our plate. This can mean buying from local farmer’s markets, or products that were grown in your region.
Bonus Tip: eating locally also helps support our economy and the produce is likely fresher and in season!
If you’re in Ontario, Sobey’s has a great guide for when produce is in season: What’s in Season? Your Guide to Canadian Produce in Ontario
4. Consider Food Waste & How to Reduce It
Research has shown that one third of food produced in the world does not get eaten (12). Foods that are the most likely to be wasted are fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers (i.e. potatoes). Beyond the food lost, this is also a huge waste of the resources needed to bring food to our plates.
Some easy steps to reduce your food waste include (13):
- Use a shopping list at the grocery store. This helps to make sure you have a plan to use each food you purchase.
- Use all animal products you purchase. This is especially true for red meat, since it takes so much more resources to produce – it’s best to enjoy it fully and not throw it away!
- Use your leftovers. Putting leftovers in reusable containers and store them in the fridge (or freeze them to reheat for a quick meal later). It’s great to make a point to use leftovers, and you can get creative with this too! Save extra pasta sauce to make a lasagna later on in the week or use leftovers and make a sandwich or quick lunch.
- Store your leftovers in the front of your fridge. This will keep them within eyesight and be a reminder to eat them before they go bad.
Guelph Family Health Study has a great resource with tips and recipes for reducing food waste:
Rock What You’ve Got: Recipes for Preventing Food Waste
When it comes to food packaging, the old saying, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” comes into play.
5. Reduce: Be “Package Conscious”
- Choose products that have as little packaging as possible and reuse or recycle after you’re finished.
- Choose glass when possible, as it is a more environmentally friendly option than Styrofoam or plastics (13).
- Buy products in bulk sizes because single-use packages have a higher environmental footprint. You can separate the products into glass jars for storage at home afterwards.
Reusing containers and bags can reduce the amount of packaging waste we produce. Here are some ideas:
- Bring your own re-useable bags: Using a own reusable bag when shopping save over 22,000 plastic bags. (14)
- Get creative with containers. For example, a wine bottle could be a great rolling pin.
- Use a refillable water bottle instead of a plastic bottle. In Toronto, we are lucky to live in a community that has access to safe drinking water. Still, many people choose to drink bottled water over tap. Bottled water not only costs about 2000 time more than tap, but also requires great amounts of resources to produce. In addition, the recycling rates of plastic are very low, so many of the bottles end up in landfills, on our streets, in the ocean and other places that they can cause great harm (15). If you aren’t a fan of tap water, you can try adding fruits like lemon or lime to add more flavour. Or if you like bubbly water, consider buying a home carbonator.
7. Recycle “Right”
Many of us have only good intentions when recycling, however a large amount of recyclable material ends up in our landfills. Containers with food leftovers can contaminate other recyclable materials and end up getting thrown away. We can help ensure more of our recyclables actually are recycled by washing food containers and learning how to recycle properly.
Each city is different and it’s good to know what’s accepted as recycling in your area. Toronto has many resources to help people recycle properly including the TOWaste App that gives quick answers for how to sort over 2,000 items as well as many other features.
We all have a role to play in helping to reduce our impact on the environment.
It all begins with awareness. Small, everyday changes, like choosing to eat plant-based once a week, can lead to large, beneficial impact over time.
About the Author
Rebecca is a holistically-minded Dietitian. She believes food is a cornerstone of well-being and is complementary to life, should not be overwhelming or restrictive. Using mindful eating approaches, Rebecca focuses on what works best for each individual she works with, recognizing that we are all unique. Read more about Rebecca at this link here.
Nutrition and Dietetics. Rebecca is a Registered Dietitian licensed by the College of Dietitians of Ontario
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 Vermeulen, S., Campbell, B. & Ingram, J. (2012). Climate change and food systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. Vol. 37:195-222. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608
 International Water Management Institute (2007). Water for food water for life: A comprehensive assessment of water management in agriculture. Standalone Summary. https://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/assessment/files_new/synthesis/Summary_SynthesisBook.pdf
 Foley, J., DeFries, R., Asner, G., Barford, C., Bonan, G., Carpenter, S., Chapin, F., Coe, M., Daily, G., Gibbs, H. & Helkowski, J. (2005) Global consequences of land use. Science. Vol. 309:570-4.
 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (n.d.). Sustainability. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sustainability/
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 Choose Canada Organic (2014). What does organic mean? Accessed by: https://choosecanadaorganic.ca/organic101/#:~:text=Organic%20refers%20to%20the%20way,and%20animal%20friendly%20farming%20methods.&text=In%20Canada%2C%20this%20system%20is,both%20domestic%20and%20imported%20products.
 Egan, S (2020). How to be a conscious eater: Making food choices that are good for you, others and the planet.
 Government of Canada (2020). Pesticides and food safety. Accessed by: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/about-pesticides/pesticides-food-safety.html#:~:text=Organic%20produce%20sold%20in%20Canada%20is%20subject%20to%20the%20Canadian%20Organic%20Standards.&text=To%20date%2C%20there%20is%20no,eat%20than%20conventionally%20produced%20foods.
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 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2011). Global food losses and food waste: Extent, causes and preventions. Accessed by: http://www.fao.org/3/mb060e/mb060e.pdf
 Egan, S (2020). How to be a conscious eater: Making food choices that are good for you, others and the planet.
 Shirley, S. (2019). How many plastic bags are saved by using one reusable bag? Accessed by: https://www.factorydirectpromos.com/blog/how-many-plastic-bags-are-saved-by-using-one-reusable-bag/
 Recycling Council of Ontario (2019). Canada recycles just 9 percent of its plastics. Accessed by: https://rco.on.ca/canada-recycles-just-9-per-cent-of-its-plastics/