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Changing your eating habits can help the environment

Sustainable food habits – practices that support a more environmentally and socially responsible food system – are a growing interest in our efforts to protect the environment and our communities from the potentially damaging effects of agriculture, such as soil erosion and the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Adopting even one seemingly small and simple sustainable food habit can make a huge difference in promoting a more sustainable food system.

Here are EN’s top five sustainable food habits:

1. Plant-based

A plant-based diet, which focuses on including more plant foods than animal foods in your diet, can have a significant impact on the environment. Producing billions of pounds of animal meat and dairy each year takes a lot of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, feed and water, which accounts for 51 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2009 report in World Watch Institute magazine.

Plant foods, such as vegetables, rice, beans and tofu, have a much lower environmental impact. Why not give Meatless Monday a try by replacing meat with plant proteins such as nuts, beans and soy foods? According to the Environmental Working Group, if a family of four skips eating steak just one day a week for one year, it would be like taking a car off the road for three months.

2. Go organic

Because fewer chemical pesticides and fertilizers are used, organically grown and raised products have less impact on the environment. When applied to animal products like dairy, organic means that no antibiotics or synthetic hormones are fed to the animals. Look for foods labeled USDA Certified Organic or ask at your farmers’ market.

3. Close to home

Eating locally means sourcing foods that are produced relatively close to where they are sold. Local eating can reduce the number of miles that food travels, which lessens the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Eating close to home also helps to keep local jobs safe, because the farmer can sell products within the community.

Local farms, cooperatives, farmers markets, CSAs (community supported agriculture) and, increasingly, supermarkets, may all be local options. Even better, grow your own food if you can, whether it’s a crop of juicy tomatoes or a favorite herb in a window box; the result is local, sustainable, healthy and delicious.

4. Seasonal sense

For produce, learning to eat with the seasons means choosing foods that are not grown under artificial conditions, such as heated greenhouses, or grown hundreds of miles away, picked prematurely and transported long distances.

Seasonal foods are better for the environment, and cheaper, because they require fewer resources and less energy to produce. Choosing seasonal options adds variety, flavor and freshness, and also supports local agriculture. Apples, beets, broccoli, cranberries, garlic, leeks, parsnips and squashes are among fresh produce that lingers well into winter in Western New York.

5. Reduce waste

More food than any other single material fills landfills and incinerators, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which recorded more than 36 million tons of food waste in 2012. Rotting food is a major source of methane, one of the greenhouse gases associated with global warming.

In addition, 13 percent of greenhouse gases are attributed to growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food. Adopt a no-waste mindset by planning weekly menus and buying only as much food as you know your family will eat. When there is too much, avoid spoiling by freezing, drying or incorporating foods into stock, soups and casseroles.

Choose whole foods over processed when you can, as packaged items not only take more energy to produce, they contribute to packaging waste, as well.

Lori Zanteson is a registered dietitian.