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Diet for a Small Planet

Our everyday food choices - from what we eat to where it came from to how we get it home from the store - offer great possibilities for harming or healing our planet


Eating used to not be so complicated. Historically, people grew their own food, or purchased from nearby farms. Today - well, things have changed.

In addition, global society is becoming more meat-centric, and is relying on industrial farming - including in places like the Amazon rain forest - for the bulk of its food.

What's for supper? Here are a few things to consider:

The elephant (or cow) in the room: meat and dairy

Choosing how much meat to eat, and the way it was produced, is one of the most environmentally significant choices we make. Here is a balanced article from the Lancet,

a respected British journal. Summary: less for the Rich World, a little more for the Poor World. Here is a report from the UN on the impact of meat production on climate change. Key point: this sector is responsible for around 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. "Green" beef? Green-washing, according to this article. And here's the carbon footprint of different diets. Eelgrass anyone? Great source of protein, and absorbs carbon at 35 times the rate of rain forest!

Looking for plant-based alternatives to milk? Here's a good analysis, and here's a nutritional comparison. She really likes milk in her coffee, but...

Food Waste

Producing food requires about 40 percent of the world's surface area, but here in the USA we waste about 40 percent of the food we produce - and with it, all the water, soil, fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, packaging, human labor, and habitat that went into it. Landfills receive more food waste than any other single material - over one-fifth of US trash by volume, according to the EPA. Here's the situation globally. What can you do to reduced this waste in your home, school, congregation and community? At our Sustainable Living Centers, we work at both ends: recuperating food that would otherwise be sent to landfills and getting it to people who need it (VT), and teaching composting skills (VA & VT).

The (other) elephant in the room: climate chaos

Climate change is a clear and present danger to the world's food supply. It is impacting food production in the USA, but for now, our wealth gives us other options. Around the world, our neighbors are not so fortunate. Here's an album from recent Learning Tour visits to areas of the world on the front lines of dealing with climate change, especially in relation to food security. (Preview: Our friends in climate-impacted Malawi were down to one meal a day when we visited.)

Bringing it home

How we get our groceries home is part of the eco-equation. Did we make a special trip in the car to purchase them? What kind of bag did we use to take them out of the store? Was the produce prewrapped in plastic (keeps items fresher at a big eco-cost)? Here's an article that will show why NCP recommends using scavenged bags (that someone else has used and discarded) or making tote bags from repurposed clothing. Yep, those cotton or recycled plastic totes aren't as green as we think.

Good housekeeping: To-do list for greener food choices and food prep, from this article and NCP's archives.

1. When boiling water, put a lid on it.

2. Put down the paper towels (55,000 trees are cut every day in the USA to make them).

3. Reuse parchment paper and aluminum foil.

4. Ditch the plastic bag and avoid plastics of all kinds. It hardly ever gets recycled.

5. Give zip-tops a second life.

6. Do away with disposable plates and cutlery.

7. Save the water you use to rinse things to water the flowers.

8. Run the dishwasher only when it’s full.

9. Don’t let the faucet run when washing dishes by hand.

10. Use small appliances more often than the big ones.

11. Know what’s in your fridge, freezer and pantry. Embrace leftovers (we waste 40 percent of the food we grow in the USA – most of this after it reaches our homes).

12. Be smarter when preheating the oven (many items can go in right away and start cooking as the oven heats).

13. Choose reusable coffee equipment.

14. Opt for eco-friendly cleaning products.

15. Check your refrigerator’s temperature (37 degrees is optimal) and clean your fridge coils.

16. Buy local when you can (but try not to make long single-purpose vehicle trips to get it).

17. Try composting (food waste in landfills is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases).

18. Reevaluate your meat and dairy consumption (going vegan – or heading in that direction – can reduce greenhouse gases by 75%). "Eco-friendly" beef? Most likely green-washing

19. Be on the lookout for - and avoid - palm oil. They're cutting down rainforest to grow it, and it's in half the stuff at the grocery store.

Pollinators -Insects pollinate up to one-third of our food crops. Yet, up to 80 percent of non-pest insects have disappeared from the ecosystem over the past several decades. Where did they go?  Monoculture, loss of woodlands and other habitat, light pollution, pesticides, car windshields. And of course climate change, as we’re losing bugs even in remote places (Greenland) where those other things don’t apply. 


One of the main culprits for habitat loss is our penchant for lawns. These closely cropped expanses of monoculture grass occupy 40 million acres in the USA, requiring 9 billion gallons of irrigation water per day, and creating about 10 pounds of CO2 per hour to mow. And of course are dead zones as far as insects are concerned. They are indeed a toxic obsession.

So one remedy for the disappearance of insects is to turn our lawns into habitat, saving time, money, carbon—and bugs! NCP will provide modest grants to schools and congregations who turn lawns into ladybug (and butterfly and bee) habitat.


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