If you’re like me, you do what you can for the environment. While I haven’t progressed to giving up toilet paper or line-drying my laundry, I take public transportation, I compost and recycle at home, and I forego bottled water along with most disposable shopping bags. It’s the little things, right?
One of the little things I do is get most of my food from our local farmers’ market, because it’s hard to deny that large-scale commercial agriculture has some pretty depressing side effects, both for our health and for the environment. I’ve adjusted to eating free-range organic eggs, fruit grown without pesticides, and heirloom beans harvested by hand. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try to green our food sources, there are some items that are unusually hard on the environment—and there’s not much we can do about it.
Consumed in larger quantities than apples or oranges are, bananas are the most popular fruit in America. But they’re also one of the most labor-intensive products, and they have one of the largest carbon footprints. One big problem is that in the United States, there’s almost no such thing as a local banana—the fruit grows only in tropical climates. The vast majority of bananas for sale in America come from Ecuador or Costa Rica, so they’ve been packaged, refrigerated and treated to prevent ripening, and transported thousands of miles, using up large quantities of fuel and energy.
On the plantations where they’re grown in Central America, South America, the Philippines, and elsewhere in Asia, growers use massive amounts of pesticides. The banana’s thick skin makes the pesticides only a minor threat to humans, but the runoff harms the region’s soil and wildlife. Not to mention that the growers clear rain forest away for banana cultivation, further harming the land, and that the main banana-growing companies have a long history of human-rights violations due to their inhumane treatment of their mostly poor and indigent workforce.
It’s no secret that beef consumption takes a pretty serious toll on the planet. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 33.3 million cattle were slaughtered in 2009 in America, and that only accounts for a third of the total number of cows being raised on farms and feedlots all over the world. Beef production is especially resource-intensive; not only does it consume fuel and energy to raise, tend, slaughter, package, and distribute the beef, but commercial cattle also consume a staggering amount of corn, which consumes its own resources in the form of fertilizer, production energy, and water.
Cows are also costly to raise, and they generate a lot of waste. Manure from feedlots has infected groundwater in many rural communities, and the cows themselves excrete methane gas, which is about twenty-three times more potent than carbon dioxide. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that around the world, the 1.2 billion heads of cattle being prepared for market emit about eighty million metric tons of methane every year. In fact, many environmental scientists recommend restricting beef consumption as a powerful weapon against climate change.
American supermarkets often obscure the fact that oranges—all citrus fruits, really—are a delicacy. In the United States, they’re only grown in the hot climates of Florida (and to a lesser extent in California and Arizona). That means that after transporting the raw fruit to the processing plant and then getting the juice to market, the product has already traveled thousands of miles. Oranges are also very thirsty crops, often consuming hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of water per hectare, and they’re usually heavily treated with pesticides. One estimate from Treehugger.com put the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice at 3.6 times the emissions created by bottled water.
Although all commercial orange juice undergoes processing, packaging, pasteurization, and refrigeration, not-from-concentrate juices are the least environmentally damaging, since they’re spared the energy costs of the dehydrating machinery that concentrated orange juice is put through. The worst kind of all is from-concentrate juice that’s been rehydrated and packaged by a distributor (such as Minute Maid). The only truly green way to enjoy orange juice is juicing local oranges yourself.
Sorry, lovers of edamame. Despite the health benefits of eating tofu and soy products instead of animal proteins, the cultivation of soybeans isn’t very good for the environment. Soybeans are huge in Brazil, and the boom has resulted in the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest in order to make way for farmland. The Nature Conservancy estimates that since 2000, acreage of soybean fields in Brazil has increased 13.6 percent every year. They also report that one-seventh of the Amazon has already been clear-cut to make way for soybeans, along with cattle ranching. World soybean production has quintupled since 1950, and the versatile legumes are now used for just about everything—human food products, animal feed, biofuel, cosmetics, soap, and plastics. Growers moved large parts of the operations to China, India, and Brazil because of the looser environmental regulations and worker protections in place there.
The Nature Conservancy also reports that 87 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States (50 percent worldwide) are genetically modified, and that although they’ve supposedly been engineered to resist pests, they actually require more pesticides than traditional beans do. In the United States, soybeans are the second-most pesticide-intensive crop grown after corn, and the pesticide runoff infects groundwater, poisoning other plants and animals.
In an increasingly diverse and globalized world, it’s difficult to acquire everything from local, sustainable, organic, fair-trade, and cruelty-free means, but we do what we can, when we can. And for these four troublesome foods, perhaps the only positive thing we can do is eat less of them.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons