Is The Food That’s Good For You Good For The Environment?

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Your healthy choices could be hurting Mother Nature. (Photo: Flickr/torbakhoppe)

It’s a surprisingly complicated question: Is the food that’s healthy for you healthy for the environment, too?

We assume so. For example, studies show that people believe organic foods — just by the nature of being organic — are healthier all around. The problem is: sometimes they’re not. 

But if you’re of the opinion that produce protects the ground it grows in, you were probably surprised by headlines suggesting otherwise: It takes one gallon of water to grow one almond! Avocados are serious water-suckers! Fruits and vegetables can also have a huge environmental footprint

These headlines leave us questioning not only our healthy eating habits (do I need to give up avocados?), but also our organic choices (is this really better for the environment?).

That’s why we dug in to find out how different growing processes and foods impact the land, the food you’re eating, and ultimately, your own body. From soil health to pesticides and water use, we break down what matters most when it comes to impact growing food has on the environment. 

Organic Vs. Conventional Farming: Is One Better?

Organic farms and processors, in general, preserve natural resources and biodiversity. They use products and methods that aim to protect the environment — avoiding most synthetic materials. Conventional farms, on the other hand, have a different set of characteristics: rapid innovation of technology, large-scale farms, high-yield crops, and the use of synthetic pesticides.

While organic farming has its perks, “in society, we value biodiversity, ethnic diversity, and racial diversity — it’s time to start valuing different farming systems, too,” Paul Vincelli, PhD, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, tells Yahoo Health.

Why? Vincelli believes the answer to what’s “good” or “bad” for the environment isn’t as clear-cut as all organic or all conventional. “I don’t think it’s possible to grow the food we need for 7 billion people without having some sort of an impact,” he says. “Ultimately, it comes down to trade-offs.”

Take a recent European review of research, which compared the impact of organic farming to conventional farming. It found that while, in some ways, organic was better for Mother Nature, by other measures, conventional farming won out.

For instance, the research suggested that organic farms had better quality soil and lower nutrient losses per area. But while they also had lower energy requirements, they used more land, produced fewer items, and had higher eutrophication potential (a pollution problem that stems from an oversupply of nutrients and can potentially lead to a lack of oxygen in the environment).

Both methods have their downsides. Research continues to show that organic farming fails to yield the same amount of crops as conventional methods. But conventional farming takes heat when it comes to synthetic pesticides. To this point, Vincelli reminds that even organic farms use pesticides. “Everybody wants to reduce pesticide use. We’re all on same page for that,” he says. The problem: There’s an assumption that if a pesticide is synthetic, it must be bad for the environment; if it’s natural, it’s good for the environment.

If only things were that easy. But pinpointing synthetic as evil simply isn’t accurate, Vincelli says. In his own research, Vincelli used Cornell’s Environmental Impact Quotient to measure the effects of organic versus conventional pesticides on the environment — toxic effects on insects and animals, pesticides on the environment, and risk of exposure. Vincelli’s research found that the organic pesticide copper sulfate had a value of 59 and sulfur (also commonly used in organic farming) scored 261. And the widely used conventional pesticide azoxystrobin? That scored a 4. And methoxine, another conventional one, had a value of 17. 

“We used that not to say, ‘Organic is not good,’ but to question the assumption that natural means better for the environment,” he says. The takeaway might be that it shouldn’t matter whether or not a pesticide is synthetic, Vincelli says, but whether or not it fits the bill for the environment it’s being used in.

Unearthing The Truth About Vegetables’ Dirty Rep

Do vegetables harm Mother Nature simply in the way they are grown? Here are the factors to consider: 

The pesticide issue. “Vegetable crops often require more disease control sprays,” says Vincelli. And reports like the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen — an annual list of produce with the highest pesticide loads — can lead you to question how your fruit and veggies are grown. And then there are all the potential health risks: A study out just last week linked pesticide residue on produce to lower sperm counts (though it’s worth noting that the men in the study were already seeking fertility help). A recent University of Washington study also found lower levels of pesticides in people who ate organic produce versus conventional. But ultimately, the American diet lacks produce, and getting more of it — whether organic or conventional — should be the goal.

Related: The 14 Foods To Consider Buying Organic

Produce is thirsty. “Water is one of many key inputs to the environmental footprint of a food product,” says Rachel Greenberger, the director of Food Sol, an action tank for food entrepreneurs at Babson College. But she says to remember water consumption for meat and dairy products — consistently and across categories —exceed those of vegetable and grain products. “Going after almonds and avocados out of this important context is misleading,” she tells Yahoo Health. Environmental side effects of animal food production — methane gas into the air, nitrate into the soil, and runoff into the soil and water — are disastrous, she says.

But processed foods are worse. High-fructose corn syrup (found in processed foods) is one of the most environmentally damaging ingredients, Keith Kantor, PhD, CEO of all-natural food company Service Foods, Inc., tells Yahoo Health. Why? For one, corn is grown as a “monoculture,” meaning the land is used only for corn and not rotated, thereby depleting soil nutrients, contributing to erosion, and requiring more pesticides and fertilizer, he says. Even more: “Atrazine, a common herbicide used on corn crops, has been shown to turn male frogs into hermaphrodites,” Kantor says. 

What It Really Means To Grow Sustainably 

“Sustainable crop farming using multi-cropping practices, minimal pesticide use, and an intense focus in soil integrity and health will yield the most nutrient-rich produce,” says Kantor. And this is how things used to be. Before “get big or get out” — a movement urging big farms and single commodity crops “from fencerow to fencerow” — about 40 to 50 percent of Americans farmed, estimates Greenberger. “Today, that number is about 1 percent,” she says.

And when people were growing food for a community, they used the land efficiently with different foods and animals working in conjunction with one another and with nature. “Instead of treating agriculture like a technology project, they treated it like a biological process,” says Greenberger. Take the example of the three sisters: corn, squash, and beans. These plants grow best together, an idea that goes back to farming techniques of the Native Americans.

Managing the food footprint also involves the notion of fitting a product to its region — or “buying local” as many know it. Growing what your area grows best, given natural resources and importing or exporting with other regions, is most environmentally friendly. But remember: “Just because a farm is near you doesn’t mean it’s supporting local resources in a way that’s admirable,” says Greenberger. Do your research to find out the crops local to your area. Transporting foods can lead to a big carbon footprint, but so too can growing food in a place it wouldn’t naturally occur, she explains. 

Related: 10 Tips For Eating More Real Food

The Dirt On Farmed Foods

Here’s a deeper dive on three foods that have been extra under the microscope as of late, and how they impact the environment.

Broccoli

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(Photo: Getty Images/Westend61)

The verdict: Eco-friendly. Broccoli consumes a lot of water (5.4 gallons per head). And since most broccoli comes from California, this adds to the severe water shortage there. But Kantor’s opinion: “The health benefits and the fact that little or no chemicals have to be used are more than worth the extra water.” See, isothiocyanates — chemical groups in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli — can be toxic in large quantities, but have anti-cancer properties at the concentrations found in foods, says Kantor. Because of their ability to protect themselves, farmers can grow broccoli without the need for excess chemicals and pesticides, he adds.

Almonds

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(Photo: Getty Images/Virginia Portioli)

Verdict: Both non- and eco-friendly. The almond shell is used as a biodegradable polymer in color pigmentation in the manufacturing of furniture and toys. This creates a completely new market for agricultural waste, says Kantor. The downside: They’re grown in the driest areas of California, too, and require copious amounts of water. But in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Brad Gleason, the president of a pistachio and almond orchard management company, writes that “looking at the societal value of producing food only by gallons of water used is silly, if not absurd. My fellow growers of other crops calculate that it takes about 168 gallons of water to produce a single watermelon. And 50 gallons for a cantaloupe. That head of broccoli that you feel good about serving to your child? Thirty-five gallons. A single ear of corn requires roughly 40 gallons.” He also points out: “Almonds are a ‘permanent’ crop with a life span of 18 to 20 years.” 

Avocados

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(Photo: Stocksy/Sean Locke)

Verdict: Both non- and eco-friendly. A single avocado tree can grow to be 80 feet tall and yield 100 to 400 fruits each year, says Kantor. “A mature tree absorbs up to 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year — enough to offset 26,000 car miles. This makes avocados a more environmentally friendly source of fat than dairy — a single cow produces the equivalent of about 2.75 tons of CO2 per year,” he says. Avocados are grown in places like California and then also in Chile, Mexico, and Peru. And while the demand on water can be great, Mother Jones points out: “Overall, California’s avocado farms have a relatively light water impact. Unlike almonds and pistachios, whose acreage has expanded dramatically in recent years, land devoted to avocados has actually shrunk, from a high of 76,000 acres in 1987 to fewer than 60,000 acres in 2012 (although production has held steady, because yield increases have offset the loss of acres).” 

Eating local can be a solution, that article points out. Kantor adds that avocado blossoms are pollinated by honeybees, producing a bonus crop: reddish avocado honey. “Long-lived avocado trees can also be productive for decades, creating a canopy and root system that maintains the soil.”

And then there are some foods that even help the environment…

Garden Peas

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(Photo: Getty Images/Malgorzata Stepien)

The verdict: Eco-friendly. “Peas can be thought of as a sort of self-fertilizer, because they basically make their own nitrogen,” says Kantor. Nitrogen is one of the most important chemical elements for plants. If there’s not enough available in the soil, plants look pale and their growth is stunted, he says.Legumes like peas work together with nitrogen fixing bacteria called Rhizobia to “fix” nitrogen, he explains. Because of this, they require much less fertilizer and can enrich the soil, Kantor says.

Oysters

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(Photo: Stocksy/ John Dunaway)

The Verdict: Eco-friendly. “Aquafarming, if managed properly, is a positive farming practice,” Derek Miles, the chef at Adalya, a New York City restaurant, tells Yahoo Health.Oysters are considered ecosystem engineers — they can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.“As we learn more about the negative effects of mass farming, it’s encouraging to know that oysters are a restorative protein choice for people, and one that we can feel good about serving.”

Read This Next: Study Reveals The Horrifying Amount Of Processed Food We Buy

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