Earth-Friendly Fare: 3 Ways to Eat Lower on the Food Chain

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By Cheryl Sternman Rule

When I think of a food chain, I always picture a giant whale swimming through the ocean gobbling up smaller sea creatures in his path. But food chains are part of a broader ecosystem, and, as humans, our place at the top carries awesome responsibility.  Sure, we could go through our lives eating whatever suits our fancy, but doing so without a thought to future generations would be reckless. Here on NOURISH Evolution, there has been much written about sustainability, and at its core, that’s what eating lower on the food chain is intended to promote: sustainable food systems that take the long view rather than satisfying our immediate cravings.  With Earth Day upon us, the time is right to consider how eating lower on the food chain benefits not only us, but the planet at large.


Most people assume the most environmentally friendly diet is one that’s purely local, where food miles are capped to cut emissions created through transportation.  In fact, a 2008 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology revealed that the vast majority of emissions are caused in the production of food, rather than in its transport.  This means we want to pay as much, if not more, attention to what we eat and how it’s produced as to how far it has traveled.

In their book Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming (Gibbs Smith, 2008), authors Laura Stec and Eugene Cordero explain that “it takes significantly more energy to make food from animal products than it does to grow vegetables.”  Vegetables and grains have an “energy intensity” (a measure of how much energy it takes to produce a food) of 1.2 to 2.5, they note, compared to 16 to 68 for chicken, pork, or beef. And that’s just the production side; there’s the emissions side to consider, too.  Producing meat and other animal proteins generates greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane and nitrous oxide, which leaves a sizable carbon footprint, and leads, ultimately, to global warming.

As consumers and diners, then, we have a powerful choice. By eating more plant products and fewer animals products–in other words, eating lower on the food chain–we can collectively lessen our environmental impact and tread more lightly on the earth.

Here are three ways to eat lower on the food chain:

  1. Go vegetarian a few days a week.  Grains, seeds, nuts, and produce make up the food chain’s bottommost rung. For more tips on how to incorporated meatless meals into your diet, visit Meatless Mondays, a nonprofit initiative created in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
  2. When you do eat meat, pay attention to its source and production methods. Grass-fed and heritage meats from smaller farms tend to exert a smaller environmental toll than meats produced in factory farms.
  3. Choose sustainable seafood, particularly smaller fish, such as sardines and anchovies.

There’s one bonus benefit to eating lower on the food chain, too: Doing so is not only better for the planet, but tends to be better for our personal health as well.


Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.