Eating Sustainably: Exposing the Environmental Impact of Our Favorite Healthy Foods

Carrots with stems
Creating pesto from carrot or beet tops minimizes food waste. Photo by Rachel Claire

It is well known that eating a plant-based diet is more sustainable. Food production contributes to about 25 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with the meat and dairy industry being the primary contributors (Ohlau et al., 2023). According to Ohlau and colleagues, non-vegetarian diets contribute to over twice the GHG emissions compared to vegetarian and vegan diets. So, the solution is evident for those looking to eat more sustainably: reduce meat, eggs, and dairy consumption.

What about those who are already committed to a plant-based or plant-forward diet? How can they make a more substantial impact? This article reviews some of the least sustainable seafood, grains, vegetables, and fruits while providing strategies for making wiser choices. Embrace a practical approach and choose the most sustainable options while allowing flexibility for affordability and availability considerations. 

Opt for King salmon over Atlantic salmon for a more sustainable option

Photo Credit: Photo by Deane Bayas

Least Sustainable Fish Choices

Many popular seafood choices are affected by harmful fishing practices. Over three billion people worldwide rely on wild-caught and farmed seafood, yet 85 percent of the marine fish stocks are fully exploited or overfished (World Wildlife Fund, 2024). While at risk, fish is still one of the most efficient sources of proteins. The key is selecting fish from well-managed wild-capture fisheries and environmentally conscious marine aquaculture (NOAA Fisheries, 2024). Opting for sustainable seafood can have a positive impact. 

You might be surprised to discover that many of your favorite choices are still considered “best choices,” but there are excellent alternatives to those listed to avoid. For instance, choose Pacific Cod from Alaska instead of Atlantic Cod and opt for Chinook/King salmon over Atlantic salmon for a more sustainable option. 

Seafood Watch is a valuable resource. They provide reliable recommendations based on a rigorous, impartial, and transparent evaluation process (, 2024). They rate fisheries and aquaculture operations as “Best Choice,” “Good Alternative,” or “Avoid,” aligning them with established sustainability standards. Their seafood shopping and dining guide is an excellent tool for businesses and consumers seeking to make informed choices about their seafood. 

Minimize: Atlantic halibut, Atlantic cod or scrod, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic halibut, Atlantic scallop, bigeye tuna, bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass, Greenland halibut, grouper, hoki, monkfish, orange roughy, pollock, redfish, red snapper, yellowfin tuna, tropical shrimp, imported swordfish, skates and rays, sharks. Check out Seafood Watch to learn more. 

Opt for: Abalone, Bass farmed from the U.S., Pacific cod from Alaska, Alaskan king crab, Lionfish, Mussels, farmed oysters, rockfish from the U.S., Chinook/king salmon, scallops, shrimp, swordfish from the U.S., trout farmed from the U.S., Skipjack/chunk light tuna.

Opt for fair-trade, organic, or domestically grown avocados whenever possible.

Photo by Deane Bayas 

The Environmental and Social Impact of Favorite Fruits and Vegetables

Many beloved fruits and vegetables come with significant environmental and social consequences. These include concerns about GHG emissions, water and land use, reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, food waste, and impacts on agricultural communities. Half of the world’s habitable land is utilized for agriculture, and farming activities account for up to 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals (Ritchie, H. 2021). Fruits and vegetables also lead the ranking of food waste, with 40-50 percent of their production ending up as non-renewable resources that go unconsumed (Cassani et al., 2022). While fruits and vegetables do not have as big of a carbon footprint compared to the meat and dairy industry, some specific ones, such as sweet peppers, cucumbers, asparagus, cauliflower, tomatoes, melons, and pineapple, still contribute significantly to carbon emissions (Circular Ecology, 2008). 

Circular Ecology “The Carbon Footprint of Fruits and Vegetables.” Circular Ecology, 2008. Retrieved January 2024.

Another favorite fruit to be mindful of is avocados. At the same time, they have a lower carbon footprint, and the surge in avocado consumption has led to widespread issues related to water loss and deforestation. Producing just one pound of avocados requires 141 gallons of water, nearly six times the amount needed for a pound of tomatoes (Olson, O. 2019). Olson also noted that the heavy reliance on avocados from Mexico in the United States has adverse effects on laborers, subjecting them to long and arduous workdays, inadequate income, and job instability. In Michoacán, a crucial ecosystem in Mexico, farmers have been rapidly clearing oak and pine trees for avocado orchards. The impact of deforestation has escalated over the years, with estimates suggesting a loss of 15,000 to 20,000 acres in 2016 and an alarming increase to around 36,000 acres in 2021 (Food Empowerment Project, 2024). The Food Empowerment project adds that this extensive deforestation adversely affects various species, including monarch butterflies. Examining the challenges associated with avocado consumption brings to light its effects on water resources, deforestation, and labor issues.

One way to reduce the environmental impact of some fruits and vegetables is by eating more of them. It sounds counterproductive, but a global shift to a more plant-based diet could reduce the overall impact of these crops on agricultural land use. While this is a long-term goal, there are practical solutions we can implement right away. One helpful resource for consumers is the Dirty Dozen™ and Clean 15™, which identify produce items with higher and lower pesticide residues. At home, we can reduce food waste by using root-to-stem cooking techniques, such as making soup stock from leftover vegetables, creating pesto from carrot or beet tops, and finely dicing and roasting cauliflower and broccoli stems. Pickling is also a great option. Purchase “ugly fruits” and upcycled fruits and vegetables from companies like Imperfect FoodsMisfits MarketBarnanaRind, and Matriark, who value and promote sustainability.

It is essential to understand that sustainability involves multiple aspects. Some foods may have low pesticide levels but still have a significant carbon footprint or harmful social effects. We do not want to eliminate these foods but find substitutions that align with environmentally conscious choices. Even small changes can make a big difference.

Minimize Avocados from Mexico, conventional versions of asparagus, bananas, berries, cauliflower, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pineapples, sweet peppers, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, 

Opt for When choosing fruits and vegetables, consider buying fair trade, sustainably grown or organic products grown in the United States. Also, check out your local farmers’ market, co-op, and community-supported agriculture (CSA). Some of the most sustainable fruits and vegetables include apples, dates, eggplant, figs, rhubarb, cabbages, legumes, small oranges, plums, carrots, seaweed, parsnips, pears, and winter squash. To minimize your food waste, try purchasing upcycled foods. It is best to prioritize locally sourced produce that is in season and accessible.

Diversifying our grain choices promotes sustainability and provides additional nutritional benefits.

Photo by Vie Studio

The Reality of Certain Grains and Soybeans

Corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans have significant environmental concerns. More than half (52%) of irrigated land in the United States is allocated to cultivating corn, soybeans, and winter wheat (Dartmouth College, 2022).  

Conventional soybean production is associated with deforestation and habitat loss, particularly in the Amazon and other ecosystems in South America. The main driver behind this is the dairy and meat industry, which consumes over 75 percent of soy for animal feed (WWF, 2024). 

Corn requires more water and fertilizers than other crops, while wheat has high emissions and pesticide use (Biniarz, A., 2022). The overuse of fertilizers on corn fields has created “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, where oxygen levels are too low to support marine life (NRDC, 2015). Supplementing animal feed with soy, wheat, and corn alternatives could help. For example, corn can be supplemented with sorghum or oats, and soy can be replaced with fish meal, peas, and distillers’ dried grain with solubles (DDGS) (SR Publications, 2021). Distillers produce DDGS, a nutrient-rich byproduct mainly used to create ethanol for gasoline. Over 98% of DDGS in North America comes from these distilleries, with the remainder from the alcoholic beverage industry (University of Minnesota, 2024).

It might surprise you that rice has some negative consequences for the environment as well. Rice farming has a significant environmental impact, emitting twice as much harmful gases as wheat farming. (Lamb, E, 2019). The rice industry must embrace sustainable practices because it is an essential global dietary staple. There is hope on the horizon as low-methane rice production systems are scaling up (Project Drawdown, 2024)

While corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans play a vital role in our diets, being aware of their environmental impacts is crucial. Reducing global meat and dairy intake, exploring alternative livestock feed sources, and supporting sustainable farming practices for these crops are essential. Additionally, diversifying our grain choices promotes sustainability and provides additional nutritional benefits. Sustainable ancient grains like teff, einkorn, emmer, amaranth, and sorghum are higher in protein, essential fatty acids, fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, B vitamins, Vitamin E, zinc, iron, and calcium (Majzoobi M. et al.). Experiment with new recipes and purchase more sustainable options when available. 

Minimize Conventional maize/corn, wheat, rye, soy, and rice. 

Opt for Amaranth, bamboo rice, black rice, brown rice, einkorn, emmer, teff, sorghum, millet (proso and pearl), kernza, barley, buckwheat, and amaranth. Choose fair trade, organic, or sustainably produced corn, wheat, rye, soy, soy-based products, and rice when an option. 

Adopting a more sustainable diet is not only beneficial for the planet, but it can also be healthy and practical. We can reduce our environmental impact by decreasing our consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy and making wise choices regarding seafood, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Sustainable eating does not mean we must deprive ourselves, but rather make mindful choices that align with our values, are affordable, and promote a positive change for the planet, one meal at a time.


Biniarz, A. (2022). Breaking down the big three in agriculture: corn, soy, and wheat. Environment 911. Retrieved January 2024,  

Cassani, L. and Gomez-Zavaglia, A (2022). Sustainable Food Systems in Fruits and Vegetables Food Supply Chains. Frontiers in Nutrition. Retrieved January 2024,

Carlile, Clare (2019). Rice. The Ethical Consumer. Retrieved January 2024,

Circular Ecology (2008). The Carbon Footprint of Fruits and Vegetables. Circular Ecology. Retrieved January 2024,

Dartmouth College (2022). The future of US corn, soybean, and wheat production depends on sustainable groundwater use. Phys.Org. Retrieved January 2024,

Environmental Working Group (2023). EWGs 2023 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Retrieved January 2024,

Food Empowerment Project (2024). The problem with avocados. Retrieved January 2024,

Hannah Ritchie, Pablo Rosado & Max Roser (2022). Environmental impacts of food production. Published online at Retrieved January 2024,   

Lamb, E. (2019). Should we eat less rice? Scientific American. Retrieved January 2024,  

Mahsa, M., Jafarzadeh, S., Teimouri, S., Ghasemlou, M. et al (2023). The Role of Ancient Grains in Alleviating Hunger and Malnutrition. Foods. Retrieved January 2024, 

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (2024). Retrieved January 2024,

NOAA Fisheries (2024). Understanding sustainable seafood. NOAA Fisheries. Retrieved January 2024,

NRDC. (2015). Back From the Dead Zone. Retrieved January 2024,

Ohlau, M., Huning, S. and Spiller, A. Sustainable choices of plant-based (‘super’) foods: examining the consumption patterns of German consumers on avocados (2023). Frontiers in Nutrition. Retrieved January 2024

Olson, O. (2019). Consume with care: the social and environmental implications of the US avocado craze. USC Bedrosian Center. Retrieved January 2024,

Project Drawdown. Improved rice production. Retrieved January 2024,

The Whole Grains Council (2020). Quest for the Most Sustainable Grain. Whole Grains Council. Retrieved January 2024,

Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce (2024). Retrieved January 2024,

SR Publications (2024). Alternatives of Corn & Soybeans. Retrieved January 2024,

World Wildlife Fund (2024). Overview. Retrieved January 2024,

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