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Sustainability starts on our plates

Sheep rest in a pasture at an animal sanctuary. (Photo by Shawna Weaver)

As summer approaches, our diets tend to naturally shift with the season. This is good for our beltlines as the long, dark, comfort-food-calling days of winter are finally behind us. Springtime marks the season of crop growth: bring on the fresh veggies at the store (and if we’re lucky, our own yards), and the berries in the woods.

Seasonal eating is the way of our ancestors. By now our grandparents would have depleted their stores of canned goods and would be prepping the garden. Many had their own animals, but they would eat less meat as long as fresh local food was available. When they did eat meat, that too was local, and much healthier for their bodies and for the planet than our current meat options.

Sadly, the days of small local farms and free-grazing animals are essentially gone from the mainstream market. Today, 99 percent of animal products we eat come from what is known as a factory farm. Factory farms are about as they sound: animals are confined in large buildings, with as little room as possible allotted per animal to capitalize on economic returns.

According to the Humane Society of the United States and the Factory Farm Awareness Coalition, 20 percent of greenhouse gases come directly from factory farms, along with 500 million tons of solid waste. Much of that solid waste enters what are known as “manure lagoons.” These pools leach toxins, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotic chemicals into groundwater and eventually into our freshwater taps at home. Beef cattle farming is responsible for most of the current Amazon rainforest degradation as the demand for more meat requires more cultivated land and the transportation of animals/meat products accounts for a majority of vehicle CO2 emissions. Meanwhile eating meat is an inefficient use of edible foods. For every pound of beef we eat, 12 pounds of food and 440 to 2,500 gallons of water had to be spent on feeding a cow. We could just eat those pounds of food ourselves, and cut out the middle phase, which is a miserable existence for cows in factory farms.

It can be difficult to change our eating habits. We grew up with very strong emotional, social and cultural bonds with our favorite and most memorable dishes. But this is one area that revisiting the past could both restore our traditions and help replenish the planet. Our grandparents generally ate less meat than we do now and when they did, it was local: hunted, fished or from a small farm. We still have such farms, generally in the form of a CSA (community-supported agriculture). People can purchase shares directly from farmers so they know exactly what those animals were fed and exposed to (generally, far fewer herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics). More people have returned to reducing meat intake either seasonally, or throughout the weeks all year. This “reducetarian” habit includes common initiatives like “Meatless Monday” (see Through online forums, people find a lot of support and recipe ideas, making Mondays a good time to explore new foods and see how eating less meat might change our health and footprint on the planet. Reducetarianism improves our cardiovascular systems, helps us lose weight, and even reduces our risk of some cancers.

Reducing meat intake, maybe even exploring vegetarianism and veganism and eating organic and locally produced food produces a lot of holistic health benefits for both people and the planet. It does take some dedication to learn how to eat the way our grandparents ate, but the best time to try is now while the sun heats up the soil and reminds us to awaken our inner gardener.

Shawna Weaver

Shawna Weaver is a board member of Sustainable Twin Ports, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. She has Ph.D. in sustainability education and teaches at Animal Allies Humane Society and the College of St. Scholastica.