Nutrition for a Healthy Ocean (PART 1)

With the warmer weather approaching and in the spirit of new beginnings, it’s time for a new approach to my nutrition, so that my diet is more sustainable for the marine environment. Some of these ideas have already been a part of my life for some time, and others I have been looking to incorporate. In the warmer months of the year I tend to eat less than I do in the cooler seasons – my diet changes from dense, warm and grounding foods in autumn and winter to lighter, high-water content and cooling foods in spring and summer. In alignment with the changes in my nutritional needs and the seasons, there are several issues we need to be aware of when considering how our food choices impact the marine environment.

The way I live my life is determined by the potential negative effects of my choices on the marine environment. I view life from an interdisciplinary perspective – we cannot see things in isolation. There is a phenomenon in Buddhism known as ‘dependent origination’ – the idea that nothing exists independently, everything is interconnected, and all things are caused by something else. The food we eat (and other actions we take) may threaten the marine environment, but this may not be immediately apparent to us. We need to think beyond the obvious and look below the surface, to understand how our choices and their outcomes are linked, both directly and indirectly.

Think of a beautiful coastline littered with hundreds of plastic bottles. We may not associate this image with buying products in plastic bottles, because we don’t immediately see the connection between our behaviour and this outcome. We may purchase these products far away from a coastline, we may not think about where the plastic bottles end up after we throw them out, or about the energy and water required for their production. When we accept that our actions have consequences, we can start to understand we have the power to change the outcomes of our actions by simply changing our behaviour.

A vital, healthy ocean is brimming with life and biodiversity. An empty ocean (or one dominated by few species) is a dead ocean. Why is the ocean so important for human life? We rely on a healthy marine environment to supply our most basic needs – food, air and water. The ocean provides us with fish, a major source of protein, particularly for coastal indigenous communities. Plants in the ocean produce more oxygen than rainforests, providing us with the air we breathe. The ocean plays a vital role in the hydrological cycle, helping to form the clouds that create most of the fresh water we drink. The ocean constantly recycles and cleans our air and water and plays a key role in regulating the Earth’s climate and weather. The ocean is a major sink for heat and carbon, transferring heat from the Equator to the Poles and moderating levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The ocean absorbs half of the carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity.

Here are some ideas and suggestions for how we can eat more mindfully to reduce our impact on the ocean:

Eat more fruits and vegetables

If most of our nutrition is derived from fruits and vegetables, we eat less processed foods and beverages, animal protein and dairy products and we automatically use less packaging – and we also avoid the environmental issues associated with these industrial practices. There are serious problems with the way animals are farmed today and animal welfare is usually sacrificed in the pursuit of profit. Large-scale industrial farming practices (factory farms and feedlots) generate large amounts of waste that may enter river systems and the ocean.

A report by the PEW Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production in the United States found that animal waste was a key environmental concern. Around 500 million tons of manure is produced annually from U.S. farms (refer page 23). This waste is extremely high in nitrogen and phosphorus and causes excessive nutrient loading, soil pollution, contamination of surface water and groundwater, and runs off into the ocean, killing animal and plant life. Excess ammonia contributes to eutrophication and acidification of soil and water and kills plants and animals from lack of oxygen.

The ocean is vulnerable to increased greenhouse gas emissions and modern animal farming methods are responsible for about one fifth of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Ocean acidification, mass coral bleaching, erosion, dead zones and fisheries decline are potential outcomes of increased greenhouse gas emissions. The methane and nitrous oxide produced in a cow’s digestive system are 62 and 275 times as strong as carbon dioxide, respectively. Modern farming methods are more energy intensive than traditional farming practices and require increased inputs of fossil fuel, fertilizers and synthetic chemicals.

We have already discussed packaging in previous posts:  The Problem with Packaging and Plastic Not So Fantastic.

Eat organic

Conventional agricultural methods use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Residual run-off from these toxic substances may enter river systems and the ocean and damage the marine environment. A 2012 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science found a 50% decline in initial coral cover (from 28% to 14%) in the Great Barrier Reef since the 1980’s. 42% of this loss is attributed to recurrent infestations by crown-of-thorns starfish, which thrive in waters polluted by chemical fertilizers. Their projected models found that the reef shows substantial capacity for recovery if crown-of-thorns starfish populations are reduced. Harmful algal blooms are a common outcome of high nutrient loads and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in agricultural runoff. Oxygen depletion occurs when the algae die and decompose. The result is the creation of dead zones in terrestrial and marine waters, where no life can thrive due to the lack of oxygen.

I buy organic because it’s better for my health and for the Earth, but I know sometimes there may be financial limits or lack of availability when it comes to purchasing organic produce over conventional. The Environmental Working Group’s report on pesticide concentrations in fruits and vegetables and their list of the pesticide levels in 46 fruits and vegetables is a helpful resource. They have created ‘shopping list’ style guides ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and ‘The Clean Fifteen’.

The Dirty Dozen (in order of highest contamination): Apples, celery, capsicum, peaches, strawberries, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries, potatoes.

The Clean Fifteen (in order of lowest contamination): Onions, sweet corn, pineapple, avocado, cabbage, sweet green peas, asparagus, mango, eggplant, kiwifruit, cantaloupe, sweet potato, grapefruit, watermelon, mushroom.

The levels of pesticides in foods may vary depending on your geographic location and permitted pesticide allowances but follow these guidelines as a general rule:

Green leafy vegetables – spinach, kale, silverbeet, lettuce, fresh herbs (parsley, basil, coriander) – must be purchased ORGANIC.

Fruits with soft flesh – apples, grapes, peaches, pears, nectarines, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries – must be purchased ORGANIC.

Vegetables with edible skins and peels – capsicum, cabbage, asparagus, eggplant, cucumbers, celery, potatoes, broccoli, carrots, zucchini, sweet potato – must be purchased ORGANIC.

Fruits and vegetables with inedible skins and peels – bananas, pineapple, avocado, sweet corn, grapefruit, sweet green peas, onions, lemons, limes – may be purchased CONVENTIONAL.

These guidelines (with only a few exceptions) match the Environmental Working Group’s recommended lists of organic vs. conventional fruits and vegetables.

Eat by the seasons

This is easy to do if we eat organic. When we eat fruits and vegetables that are not in season in our geographic location, they have to be transported long distances (from where they are grown in season) so we can eat them all year round. This requires more fossil fuels, causing increased greenhouse gases, which puts the ocean under stress. The ocean can absorb carbon dioxide but the increased greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere causes the pH of seawater to decrease and become more acidic. The ocean is 30% more acidic than it was prior to the industrial age. Ocean acidification is a major issue.

Eating by the seasons helps us eat locally too. Discover which foods grow in each season where you live and aim to eat from this list the majority of the time. Avocado is now in season here and I am enjoying their mono-unsaturated beauty fats in abundance – in salads, green smoothies or on their own with sea salt. I’m looking forward to trying avocado blended with raw cacao from Loving Earth in a plant-based chocolate mousse.

TO BE CONTINUED.

© 2014 Environmental Warrior
Photo by Quentin Lagache on Unsplash

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