Right – continuing on with more tips on boosting our mental and physical wellbeing by eating a whole, plant-based, chemical-free (a.k.a., organic) diet. Week 1 of INTENT 365 shared 7 tips to help your personal shift to a plant-based diet, and week 7 offered 7 more. This week, we focus more on the organic part and start to consider the bigger picture. It gives me great peace of mind to know that this diet benefits not only our families, but also countless families we do not know. In fact, going organic is good for the entire multi-species family of Earth.
Tip #15: Just say no to red meat
If you’re not quite ready for a plant-based diet, at least say NO to red meat. Occasionally a new study will come out arguing that there’s low health risk to eating red meat. (See the one published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in October 2019). But the backlash from scientific community is swift and decisive. We can trust the experts at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Department of Nutrition who underscore overwhelming evidence that intake of red and processed meat increases risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. Personally, I’d rather have my health than a juicy burger.
The other problem with red meat that we don’t think about often enough is the exorbitant amount of resources it takes to produce it. Let’s look at water: A pound of beef typically takes about 1800 gallons of water to produce. (That’s irrigation for the grains/grasses for the feed plus water for the cattle to drink and water used in processing). To put it in perspective, a slice of bread uses roughly 11 gallons of water. Then there’s the amount of land needed and the degradation of that land. Plus the greenhouse gases released at a cattle ranch or slaughter facility (methane in particular). An exception is the holistic management approach to raising livestock, but since this is a limited practice, we’ll save that discussion for another time.
So for your health and that of the planet, choose green over red.
Tip #16: Save a bee…choose chemical-free
It’s high time we start talking about the chemicals used in agriculture: insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides, and other pesticides, plus chemical fertilizers a plenty. Many of these chemicals have been flagged as harmful to human and environmental health. In fact, the EU has banned a quarter of all pesticides used in the US!
The next tip has to do with pesticide residue on produce we consume. But first, I want to draw attention to a crisis we face due to pesticides in our environment: the demise of bees.
Did you know pesticides wick into plant pollen, killing pollinators like bees? As part of my Master Gardener work last year, I participated in a study at the University of California that tested flower pollen. Specifically, we measured the amount of absorbed pesticide (it varied by type of pesticide). With all the alarming news lately about declining and disappearing bee populations, we now have evidence supporting at least one explanation.
You might not be a big fan of bees, but they are vital to our food system. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says, “Pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide.” So if you like to eat, you might save our bees by choosing chemical-free. This is one of the best reasons to go organic.
Tip # 17: Opt for organic “Dirty Dozen”
Organic food isn’t always available, or it might be too expensive, so we need away to evaluate our options. For produce, consult the Environmental Working Group ( EWG), one of the nation’s leading environmental health research and advocacy organizations. They publish an annual guide that analyzes government testing of pesticide residue on conventionally grown produce. For easy memory, they summarize their findings as the Dirty Dozen (highest residue) and the Clean Fifteen (lowest residue).
If you have to go with conventional, EWG says these are the cleanest: pineapple, asparagus, avocado, cabbage, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushrooms, eggplant, kiwi, cauliflower, onions, and sweet peas. Sweet corn and papaya are in the “Clean 15”, but some is grown from genetically modified seeds, so it’s better to get organic.
Of course, EWG’s recommendations have to do with pesticide residue on the produce we consume, which is bad for our health. We also need to consider the chemicals that get in our water supply from irrigation runoff and into the air we breathe from spraying. The bigger picture is that chemical use in agriculture adversely affects the surrounding flora and fauna in the ecosystem – the ecosystem that supports us all. So if you have the means to do so, choose organic for the long-term health of all life on this planet.
Tip #18: Consume coffee consciously
Coffee drinkers have the power to do some global good by selecting beans that are sustainable and socially minded. Last year, the world consumed nearly 21 billion pounds of coffee, but only a small percentage was certifiably good for people and the planet. The Rainforest Alliance and the Smithsonian Institution Migratory Bird Center certifications set standards for shade-grown coffee, the latter of which is also bird friendly. The shade-grown method conserves biodiversity, protects waterways, decreases soil erosion, sequesters carbon, and eliminates chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This is healthier for producers, pollinators, birds and other wildlife, and (not least) consumers. This approach also allows farmers to benefit from many products like firewood, medicinal plants, and building materials.
Socially conscious coffee drinkers might already be showing their concern by buying organic and Fair Trade varieties. Unfortunately, confidence in that certification’s ability to actually improve livelihoods is waning. A better approach is to look for direct trade or “relationship roasters.” These small batch roasters prioritize long-term relationships with their growers and commit to treating them well. Other major coffee labels also care about social impact. Whole Food’s brand, Allegro pays well above the Fair Trade price. They also donate 5 percent of profits to charity, 85 percent of which is spent in growers’ communities.
A cup of coffee seems so insignificant, but given how much we drink, it’s a daily opportunity to make the world a better place.
Tip #19: Grow your own (in winter, too!)
If you want to be sure your food is organic, grow your own! For new gardens, help can be had from nonprofits such as Transition. As the name states, this NGO strives to facilitate transitions to a post-oil society. In my town, Transition Laguna Beach has installed dozens of edible residential gardens, six school gardens, and one at a church. They also set up a co-op where folks can share produce and take workshops on how to grow, cook, and preserve food. Transition members offer their labor and know-how free of charge. To keep costs down, they solicit in-kind donations from local businesses.
Even without much space, it’s still possible to grow your own. Containers fit on patios and balconies, in window boxes, and even indoors during winter. To save money, repurpose containers like milk jugs, coffee cans, cookie tins, broken pitchers, or even old toilets and sinks. It’s handy to have herbs growing right outside the kitchen window or on the sill, ready to pick when needed. Build trellises for a vertical garden of cucumbers, pole beans, and other vines. Otherwise, select compact varieties like mini peppers or dwarf tomatoes. In fact, anyone new to gardening might start with containers, since there is less to lose with small-scale experimentation.
Tip #20: Share your bounty with friends & neighbors
One “problem” resulting from having a garden is that bountiful harvests can be overwhelming. This summer I had an incredibly prolific zucchini plant, which kept spitting out zucchini for months. They were delicious, but there’s only so much a family can eat (or make into muffins or freeze). So we got to spread the joy of home-grown veggies to friends and neighbors.
The benefits of giving the gift of a bountiful harvest are similarly abundant. We reduce waste by giving away our excess, help others to eat more veggies, and get a boost from giving. In fact, the garden provides plenty of raw materials for creative gifts. We’ve made mint syrup (great for your mojito-loving friends), passion fruit syrup, holiday breads, pesto and salsa, as well as soup for sick neighbors.
By sharing our organic, home-grown goodies, we also encourage others to grow their own. There’s nothing quite like the taste of fresh-picked produce! And even if they don’t follow our gardening footsteps, they will hopefully be inspired to go organic when they shop. Honestly, the ability to give gifts I made (with help from nature 🙂 is a reason I keep planting more.
Tip #21: Support small farmers & producers
Wouldn’t it be nice to shake the hand of the person who grew or processed your food? That’s hard to do in the US, where the vast majority of the food is produced by a handful of large industrial farms. In real numbers, 4% of all farms, having sales over $1 million, produce %66 percent of all food sold in the nation. Yet globally (especially in lower income countries), 80% of the food is produced by small farmers. What happened to all the family-owned farms in the US?
I know what happened to one in Michigan. My aunt and uncle’s farm wasn’t making enough to support the family, so my uncle drove a delivery truck for Hostess to make ends meet. Until they couldn’t anymore. They sold the farm. I’d guess that this story is fairly common across America, where small operations struggle to compete against big business. And that’s a shame.
Because we’re interested in organic food, it’s also important to consider that industry in particular. InOmnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan goes into detail about how some big agribusinesses in the organic industry may cut corners to maximize profit. So while we pay more for the organic label, we can’t be sure that ethical and sustainable practices are maintained. After reading this compelling book, I favor smaller organic brands that embody the spirit of the organic movement.
Lastly, when I buy this food, I know that I don’t just benefit my family. I also help the families of people who produce my food and thousands of other families who currently find it to be out of reach. Ultimately, our purchasing power makes healthy food available and affordable for all.
We’ll expand our focus to consider how we can do more to support small farmers and producers. The bigger picture is promoting food security both locally and globally. We can do this through our commitment to a whole, plant-based, chemical-free diet. See you then!