Earth Week Challenge: Food Day

colorful vibrant salad on a plate

by Lauren White

This week, the Office of Sustainability is hosting a daily Earth Week Challenge on our Instagram account. Every day has a different topic, and today we are focusing on a big one: food. We encourage you to take a closer look at the food you eat, learn where it comes from, and consider ways to make small shifts toward more planet-friendly and health-promoting options. Join us over on Instagram for some quick and easily digestible (haha, get it?) tips.

Why is food so critical to sustainability and climate change mitigation? According to CarbonBrief, food production accounts for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and takes up half of the planet’s habitable surface1. Yet, worldwide, more than 10%Image of popular junk foods, soft drinks and candy of people are hungry, roughly 25% are overweight or obese, and another 25% are micronutrient deficient2. The World Health Organization states that partly due to the proliferation of highly processed and nutrient-poor foods, people are frequently eating more fats, sugars and salt than ever before, while not getting sufficient fruits, veggies and legumes3.  

As is the case with many environmental and social problems, the issues are complex, and the systems and infrastructures themselves are in dire need of a major overhaul. But the good news is that your daily choices and purchases have the ability to make a positive impact on the markets, your community, your health, and the planet’s well-being.

Food Production

Gone are the days of pastoral farms dotting the countryside, and people relying on crops produced in their own neighborhoods. The UN Environment Programme found that although small farms make up 72% of all farms, they occupy just 8% of all agricultural land. In contrast, large farms account for only 1% of the world’s farms, but occupy a whopping 65% of agricultural land4.

Industrialized farming – which has been touted as a way to combat world hunger by producing a higher volume of food using any means necessary – has not proven to be the panacea we’d hoped for.  Agribusiness giants produce emissions, pollute the air and water with harmful compounds, destroy wildlife habitats, and are frequently responsible for grievous human rights abuses and cruelty toward factory-farmed animals. Soil degradation and runoff from monoculture farms deplete the productivity of the land a little more each planting season. It’s not just the planet that pays the price; these externalities and losses cost the equivalent of about US$3 trillion every year5.

It can all be quite overwhelming, and you might be wondering, what can I do? Fortunately, a lot!

Empowerment and Education

First off, take a little time to research the stores and producers you frequently buy from.  Independent grocery stores, co-ops, farmer’s markets and roadside stands in your area are a great place to start. Eating locally offers the best nutrition and produces less waste because local items are generally harvested at their peak ripeness, and don’t travel as far or rely on as much fossil fuel transport. Your food dollars are reinvested into the local economy and away from industrialized agriculture. 

You can find unique items at nearby farmer’s markets, like seasonal produce, honey, salsa, freshly baked bread, pasture-raised eggs and meats, and other staples. Farmer’s markets frequently have tempting treats and goodies as well! Visit for a list of markets in Southern Arizona.

Did you know that, on average, certain crops tend to be more heavily contaminated with pesticide residues than others? The Environmental Working Group publishes two helpful wallet cards, the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen6, that you can print out and refer to when you go grocery shopping. Most consumers have a limited budget for food, and these cards help you know which produce items are best to purchase organically when you’re able. Organic agriculture relies primarily on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices rather than petrochemical pesticides, so buying Certified Organic when your pocketbook allows gives you the ability to reduce the amount of pesticide used in the environment – and the amount that ends up on your plate! Organic agriculture also prohibits the use of artificial growth hormones and prophylactic antibiotics in livestock. 

We also really like the Sustainable Seafood wallet card7 from, which rates various seafood options based on how responsibly the fish and shellfish are caught or farmed. Green, or “Best”, options have the least environmental impact, while red or “Avoid” options are overfished, poorly managed, or obtained in ways that harm other aquatic life and ecosystems.

Non-GMO Project Verified Label

In 2009, Germany banned Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), believing that these cause harm to the environment. In most of the rest of the world, however, GMOs are still prevalent in food – particularly “Roundup Ready” crops that are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, a common and highly toxic pesticide linked to lymphoma and other cancers, and likely responsible in part for honeybee decline4,8. If you’re concerned about GMOs in your food, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, and/or the new USDA “Bioengineered” label9. Manufacturers of GMO products have until January 21, 2022 to label all of their genetically engineered food products.

Home-Grown Solutions

Increasingly, many of the best solutions to the climate crisis are on the small scale, and available in our own backyards (literally). Approximately 1 in 3 Americans now has a garden in some form10, whether an extensive homestead or a simple container garden of potted herbs in a sunny window or patio. Not since the World War II victory gardens has collective interest in food security been so pronounced. The pandemic has heightened participation in gardening considerably – Reuters reports that U.S. seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co sold more seeds in March 2020 than at any other time in its 144-year history11.

Not everyone has access to an outdoor space at home, so consider renting a plot at a nearby community garden, where you can share supplies and learn tips from others. Most community gardens can make accommodations for members who are experiencing financial hardship, so don’t let monetary constraints be a barrier. 

If you don’t have the time or resources to be an active gardener right now, you can subscribe to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group to receive shares of local produce. CSAs operate on a shared risk model, which means that members pay up front for a share of the season’s bounty. If the season is unexpectedly rough - for example, storms damage the crops - the farmer’s danger of “going under” is lessened because of the CSA members' investment, and in return, the farmer typically ensures that the best shares of produce go to members first. If the season is abundant, members also share in those benefits.

Go Plant-Forward

Animal agriculture has an enormous impact on land resources. About 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock grazing, and for every wild animal on the planet, there are now fifteen farmed animals being raised for meat1. Meat and dairy production account for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. On average, beef and lamb have the highest carbon footprints of all foods, but a 100-gram portion of chicken or eggs is not far behind3.

Research suggests that there are several benefits to incorporating more plant-based foods in your diet, but most Americans still don’t get the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Plant-based foods tend to have a higher nutrient profile than animal products (for example, more antioxidants and fiber than meat and dairy, on the whole.)  Simply eating a little lower on the food chain can make a big difference. 

Observing one meat-free meal each day or "Meatless Mondays" is one easy shift you can make to increase the amount of plant foods in your diet. Meatless Mondays have actually been around since World War I, and were introduced in an effort to reduce the consumption of staple food items and aid in the war effort. Nearly 13 million families participated! President Franklin D. Roosevelt continued Meatless Mondays through WWII, but afterward, they fell out of favor until 2003, when they were revived to help people improve their health and reduce their environmental impact12.

“If the entire U.S. did not eat meat or cheese for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of not driving 91 billion miles --- or taking 7.6 million cars off the road”, states the Earth Day Network.

Reducing your consumption of animal products is only one of the many ways you can eat more sustainably.  Even just sourcing your food more carefully – especially animal products – matters! For example, grass-fed beef has a lower carbon footprint than feedlot produced beef13. That said, it’s worth noting that just because a food is “plant-based” and less environmentally damaging doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthy for your body. For example, plant-based burgers like the Impossible burger and Beyond Meat burgers are generally cholesterol-free but still contain a lot of saturated fat and salt, are fairly heavily processed, and of course, use plastic in their packaging (plastic eventually makes its way into our food supply). French fries and many other trans fat-laden junk foods are technically “vegan”, but devoid of nutrients. It’s a good practice to ensure that your diet is generally more reliant on whole, unprocessed, homemade foods when possible. Save those Impossible or Beyond Meat burgers for a special treat.

Food Waste

About one-third of food in the U.S. is never eaten, while nearly one in four households experienced food insecurity in 202014. Much of the waste occurs because of problems with the supply chain, but individual consumers can still have a big impact. The USDA states that food waste can be avoided with many strategies: at the producer level, improving product development, storage, shopping/ordering, marketing, labeling and cooking methods can help15.  At the consumer level, try to buy only as much as you will eat, and if you end up with a surplus, see if your items can be donated to local food banks. Avoiding all food waste is difficult, so composting your food scraps is the next best thing you can do to keep organic waste out of the landfill and help nourish the soil that sustains us. 

If you are experiencing food insecurity, visit the UArizona Campus Pantry, which serves members of the campus community who are facing hardship. Some of the produce stocked in the Campus Pantry is grown right on campus in the UArizona Community Garden and Student Memorial Union Rooftop Greenhouse! The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona is another excellent local resource.

The intersection of food and sustainability is complex, and we could write a book on the topic (many have!) so we hope you’ll continue to do your own research. Until then, may these ideas help spark new ways to engage with your food and suppliers. Bon appetit! 


  1. Dunne, Daisy.  Interactive:  What is the Climate Impact of Eating Meat and Dairy?

  2. Author not listed.  (2020 July 13). How to Feed 10 Billion People.  United Nations Environment Programme.

  3. WHO Nutrition and Food Safety Team.  (2018 December 13).  A Healthy Diet Sustainably Produced:  Information Sheet.  World Health Organization.

  4. Lomax, James.  (2020, July 20).  10 Things You Should Know About Industrial Farming.  United Nations Environment Programme.

  5. Richens, James.  (2015 October 15). TruCost Reveals $3 Trillion Environmental Cost of Farming.  TruCost News.

  6. EWG’s 2021 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.  Environmental Working Group.

  7. Seafood Watch National Consumer Guide:  January – June 2021.  Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

  8. Voth, Kathy.  (2018 September 24).  Is Glyphosate Killing Bees?  On Pasture.

  9. A label of contents:  GMO labels explained. Co+Op:  Welcome to the Table.

  10. Lissy, Marin.  (2017 June 15).  Gardening Boom:  1 in 3 American Households Grow Food.  Farmer Foodshare.

  11. Walljasper, Christoper and Tom Polansek.  (2020 April 19).  Home gardening blooms around the world during coronavirus lockdowns.  Reuters.

  12. Kihlander, Krista.  (2019 September 23).  Can One Meatless Day Out of the Week Make A Difference?  National Catholic Reporter:  Earthbeat.

  13. Matsumoto, Nancy.  (2019 August 13).  Is Grass-Fed Beef Really Better for the Planet?  Here’s the Science.  National Public Radio (NPR).

  14. Silva, Christianna.  (2020 September 27).  Food Insecurity In The U.S. By The Numbers.  National Public Radio (NPR).

  15. Food Waste FAQs.  United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

  16. Kaplan, Jonathan.  (2010 February).  Eat Green:  Our Everyday Food Choices Affect Global Warming and the Environment.  Natural Resources Defense Council

  17. Why Eat Local.  Eat Local First.