By Michele S. Byers
It’s easy to understand the frustrations expressed by a friend who was pondering our planet’s environmental challenges.
“I have to admit, many times I feel exasperated and powerless with the problems facing us and our environment,” said Gail Kopp. “Climate change, monoculture, wildlife diversity loss, fish population collapse, Franken-food, obesity, water pollution, and food animal cruelty. They all seem so large.”
But instead of throwing up her hands and giving up, Gail launched into research on sustainable living. According to the most common definition, living sustainably “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
After extensive research, Gail concluded that the best way she and her family could live more sustainably is through thoughtful food choices and an improved household environment. Here’s her advice:
Cook: Never before has the simple act of cooking been so important and so powerful. When we buy convenience foods or eat fast foods, we’re supporting industrial agriculture, which is harmful to the environment and not ecologically sustainable. Many prepared and fast foods are made from corn or soy, crops raised in vast monoculture swaths using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
When we cook, we choose fresh ingredients. We control the calories and portions, and can leave out preservatives, trans-fats, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors. Grocers take great interest in our purchases, and every time we choose “real food,” we vote for sustainability.
Eat less meat: Approximately 70 percent of the grains grown in this country are fed to “food animals.” Entire forest ecosystems are being converted to cattle ranches to support demand for meat. When we eat less meat, we can afford to buy better quality meat. Look for organic, pasture-raised, free-range, antibiotic-free, humanely and sustainably raised meats. For fish, think of wild, pole-caught, dolphin and turtle safe, and species with healthy populations.
Eat mostly plants: It takes 10 times more fossil fuels to raise a calorie of animal-source food as it does to grow a calorie of plant-source food. Organic fruits and vegetables are best, but for conventional produce, choose those grown with the fewest pesticides. Our most sustainably raised food comes from local farmers. Purchase your produce right off the farm, at farmers markets, at food co-ops or through community-supported agriculture programs.
Grow a garden: There’s not much more sustainable than fresh, wholesome vegetables and fruit grown in your own backyard. Take a soil test, adjust your soil as needed with organic products, plant organic seeds and enjoy deliciousness no supermarket produce can touch.
Keep your soil alive: The soil is a complex engine of living organisms. Chemicals like fertilizers, weed-killers and fungicides destroy the soil and its organisms. Organic management works! It may take more startup time and investment, but will pay off big dividends and become easier in the long term.
Make your yard a sanctuary: Bring on the birds and bees! Pollination, seed dispersal and insect control are just a few of their benefits. Soften the impact of wildlife habitat loss by providing food, water, shelter and nesting sites. Plant native species of shrubs, grasses and trees to support birds, butterflies, beneficial pollinators and maybe even a gorgeous fox.
Compost: Thriftiness goes a long way. Don’t throw yard and kitchen wastes into the trash; our landfills are overflowing already. Compost leaves, grass clippings, fruit peels and vegetable scraps, and return their essential nutrients to your garden, trees, shrubs and lawn. Recycle or repurpose everything you can.
Support local businesses: When you buy from your neighbors, you localize the dollars and jobs and improve sensitivity to community development issues. This tends to support compact town centers that conserve land and petroleum.
Vote your heart: Distill it down to the top sustainability issues that really matter to you, whether it’s environment, energy, agriculture, technological innovation or public transportation. Express your opinions and let your elected representatives know how to earn your vote.
There are plenty of ways to live more sustainably, and I hope you will take on Gail’s list.
For more information and advice on sustainable living, there are many good websites, including www.grist.org and http://greenlivingideas.com.
And if you want more information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.