In honor of Earth Month, Oola's Everyday Sustainability is here to inspire you to become more eco-savvy! We've rounded up our favorite green products, lifestyle tips, and guides for living a sustainable life.

Mother Earth has over 7.5 billion mouths to feed, and that’s just counting human beings. The global food industry is stunningly massive, worth trillions of dollars, and destroying the planet that produces the food we need to survive.

Of course, not all foods (or their environmental footprints) are created equal. Some food items are far more ecologically damaging than others—unfortunately, many of these not-so-eco-friendly foods are also the most popular.

We break down some of the most environmentally destructive foods and offer great-tasting, planet-friendly alternatives.

Sugar

Bowl of white sugar next to loose sugar cubes

Last year, 177.8 million metric tons of sugar were consumed globally—that’s over 350 million pounds of sugar. Despite this far exceeding the World Health Organization’s sugar guideline, demand shows no sign of slowing.

A recent study from the World Wildlife Fund found sugarcane to be among the most harmful commercial crops. Over 65 million acres of land are used worldwide to cultivate sugarcane, and growers will need to cultivate 50% more land by 2050 to meet projected global demand.

This new farmland is often created through deforestation. Additionally, the WWF cites intensive water use, heavy use of agrochemicals, soil erosion, and water and air pollution as some of sugar’s sourest side effects.

Sustainable alternatives to sugar cane or sugar beet sugar include date sugar, local honey, maple syrup, and stevia. The American Heart Association offers additional tips on reducing refined sugar intake both for your health and the planet’s.

Industrial Meat

Close up of packaged ground beef

According to the Global Forest Coalition, more than 60 billion animals are raised for human consumption each year. Raising, processing, and transporting these animals creates an enormous carbon footprint that’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found the global livestock industry (beef production mainly) to be a significant contributor to overall water pollution and one of the key agents of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the forced removal of Indigenous peoples.

A 2019 [study](https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18) published in the Lancet hypothesized that in order to successfully nourish Earth’s growing population, consumption of red meat needs to drop by more than half. But like sugar, the demand for meat isn’t slowing—in fact, it’s growing so quickly, it’s impossible to keep up.

Some meats are more eco-friendly than others, but the data remains the same: abstaining from meat does more than save animals’ lives. It protects our planet. And considering the incredible variety of delicious plant-based options available these days, there’s no reason not to make the switch (even if only for one Meatless Monday a week).

Industrial Fish

Shrink wrapped frozen fish filet

Mongabay reported in 2018 that one-third of the planet’s global fisheries were operating at biologically unsustainable levels, with the most unsustainable fisheries being in the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, Southeast Pacific Ocean, and Southwest Atlantic Ocean.

According to the Oceanic Preservation Society, this massive industry undermines sensitive ocean ecosystems, threatens climate stability, jeopardizes global food security, and immediately threatens marine wildlife.

A tiny number of fish species support the majority of the world’s fisheries, including herring, cod, anchovy, tuna, flounder, mullet, squid, shrimp, salmon, crab, lobster, oyster, and scallops. Tuna harvesting alone has grown 1,000% in the last 60 years, placing bluefin tuna in critically endangered status.

Sustain.com suggests ten eco-friendly fish swaps to replace some of the most popular—but unsustainable—fish in today’s market.

Palm Oil

Palm oil in glass bottles Palm oil can also be produced as biodiesel

Palm oil is used in a wide variety of food and non-food stuff, from cosmetics to bread products to laundry detergent. Palm oil accounts for around 40% of the annual global demand for vegetable oil and is mainly grown in Asian, African, and Latin American plantations.

Like sugar and meat, palm oil production can result in rampant deforestation, displaced animals and Indigenous peoples, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. But despite this bad rap, Smithsonian Magazine says that palm oil might be the lesser of all oily evils.

Compared to coconut, corn, or other vegetable oils, palm oil uses significantly fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Palm oil also produces two-thirds more oil per acre planted. Current palm oil production might not be as sustainable as it could be, but boycotting and switching to other oils could be just as environmentally damaging if not more so.

Given palm oil’s versatility, overall yield, and low chemical use, it’s likely this oil isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. You can make more sustainable palm oil choices by sticking with brands certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (ROSPO).

Dairy and (Some) Plant-Based Milk

Milk in various containers

The dairy and plant-based milk industry is a widespread and multi-faceted business with varying degrees of sustainability. Moo-ving into last place in terms of sustainability is cow’s milk.

Dairy products are sourced through the same pollution-intensive supply chain as beef. Despite using 28 times less land than beef production, dairy’s carbon footprint remains large thanks to cows’ exceedingly high greenhouse gas output (about 11% of all human-induced GHG emissions).

Plant-based milk crops like almond, soy, and rice lose sustainability points due to their intense water usage and pollination requirements that result in soil erosion, sinkholes, and bee extinction.

Oat milk has proven to be the least harmful plant-based milk option, followed closely by niche crops like hemp, flax, and hazelnut.

Asparagus (and Other Air-Freighted Produce)

Cut asparagus on cloth

Fresh fruits and vegetables often travel a long way before reaching the shelves of your local grocery store. Cultivation and transportation of globally distributed produce have resulted in rising carbon dioxide emissions, fossil fuel consumption, and unsustainable water usage.

A 2016 report from National Geographic compared common fruits and vegetables’ carbon emissions and found asparagus to be the most environmentally damaging at 8.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of food—more than pork (7.9 kg), veal (7.8 kg), chicken (5.1 kg), and turkey (5.1 kg). The second most harmful produce item was avocado, which weighed in at around 1.3 carbon dioxide kilograms.

High carbon dioxide emissions are mainly due to the crops’ need to be air-freighted, which generates 50 times more carbon dioxide than foodstuffs shipped by boat. Commercial asparagus farming is also depleting local Latin American communities’ finite water resources.

An easy way to diminish your favorite fruits and veggies' environmental impact is to buy local or grow your own. Fortunately, asparagus is one of the easiest vegetables to grow. Plant this slender perennial once, and crowns will continue to spring back up each spring for 20+ years.

Making Impactful Individual Choices

Fresh nutrient vegetarian food, farming sustainable

In theory, a global food market is not only a good thing; it’s 100% necessary. Communities worldwide depend on internationally shipped foods for nutrition and, even more often, jobs. So, the answer is not to eliminate international commerce.

The 2017 Carbon Majors Database report found just 100 corporations responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, so the problem is way bigger than your Kroger list. Luckily, organizations like the Environmental Working Group, Center for Food Safety, and many others are currently facing these major players head-on so we can enjoy our favorite food and drink guilt-free.

In the meantime, opting for Fair Trade, organic, and other certified-sustainable foods, buying locally, and decreasing meat and sugar consumption are all small but mighty ways to help save Mother Earth.

Related Reading

  1. 7 Simple Ways to Use a Little Less Plastic, Every Day
  2. Delicious but Deadly: Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Almond Milk
  3. Everyday Sustainability
May the Fourth Be With You and These Star Wars-Themed Recipes May the Fourth Be With You and These Star Wars-Themed Recipes
We Found Your New Summer Drink: Mamitas Tequila + Soda We Found Your New Summer Drink: Mamitas Tequila + Soda
7 Alternative Wedding Ideas for the Unique Couple 7 Alternative Wedding Ideas for the Unique Couple