With more urgency than ever around reducing the environmental impact of our daily lives, everyone should be empowered to make better choices in terms of the foods we eat.
Read on for some of the highest-ranking foods when it comes to sustainability credentials, and find out exactly why they’re the cream of the crop.
Because mushrooms can make use of by-products recycled from other crops as compost for growth, they have an extremely low environmental impact. They also use very little water — under two gallons per pound — and contribute extremely low CO2 emissions. Mushrooms also require very little land; in fact, just one acre can produce up to one million pounds of mushrooms.
Beans, lentils, peas and other legumes are some of the most widely available sustainable foods on the market, requiring little water to produce a high yield. Legumes have an additional superpower when it comes to sustainable farming — they’re nitrogen fixers, working in cooperation with helpful bacteria called rhizobia. These bacteria use the plant to draw nitrogen from the air and store it in the roots of the plant, creating an underground green warehouse. Once the legumes have finished their life cycles, the stored nitrogen is released into the soil, available for other plants to use. Because of this function, legumes don’t often require the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, decreasing the number of resources needed while actively nourishing the soil. A secondary benefit of legumes is that they’re also a great source of plant-based protein, making them invaluable in supporting a meat-free or reduced-meat lifestyle — a more environmentally-friendly choice in itself. They even contain vitamin B12, which can be a challenge to find on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Not only is seaweed a highly nutritional food, but its production is the least impactful form of aquaculture. Seaweed gets everything it needs from the water around it, providing generous yields with no need for fertilisers and no pollution. In addition, seaweed filters excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from the water, offering a solution to problems posed by agricultural run-offs, fish farms and sewage facilities. The vast kelp forests at the bottom of the ocean also play an important and under-valued role in removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because seaweed grows at a much faster rate than land plants, it has the potential to remove more CO2, with careful harvesting. Furthermore, seaweed provides a seasonal alternative for coastal communities dependent on fisheries, supporting local economies and helping to prevent overfishing.
Cereals and grains
Cereals and grains rank low on greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only 1.4kg of CO2-equivalents per kilogram. Additionally, they require comparatively less water than animal products; for example, wheat requires just 138 gallons of water per pound, which is about 7% of the water needed to produce the equivalent quantity of beef. Choose cereals and grains grown in your own country to reduce food miles and ensure that transport isn’t significantly increasing their carbon footprint.
Organic fruit and vegetables
No list of environmentally-friendly foods is complete without fruit and vegetables, but organic is the most sustainable option. Farming using organic methods prevents the over-use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers — essential for the long-term health of the soil. In addition, source locally and in season wherever possible to reduce food miles and minimise the environmental impact of your produce.