A Beginner's Guide To Eating Like An Ethical Omnivore

how to be an ethical omnivore

(On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today.)

If you’re excited about ethical eating but you’re not too sure where to start, there are a few simple things you can do right off the bat to ensure you’re eating ethically.

1. Switch to Organic, Grass-Fed Meat and Dairy

Most supermarkets these days will offer at least some choice in organic meat and dairy, so you won’t need to change your regular shopping habits to make this change

The organic label has several regulations about ethical, humane animal treatment, including allowing animals access to the outdoors and foregoing hormone and antibiotic treatments that conventional producers use to help animals grow more quickly and ward off illness that runs rampant in the horrifying living standards in which they are kept.

When it comes to beef or bovine dairy products, opting not just for organic but also for grass-fed is a great option. Grass-fed beef and dairy have been proven to be healthier for human consumption, and grazing is also a more sustainable and humane way to raise cattle, who naturally consume grass, not grain. (Here's why grass-fed dariy is better for you—and how to avoid the fake stuff.)

If you want to get the very best meat, dairy, and eggs, however, look for an additional label: Animal Welfare Approved. This group fills the gaps that exist in the USDA certified organic label, and while it may be tougher to find these products, you’ll be rewarded with quality products that you can feel good about buying.

2. Read Labels

The first step in adopting a more ethical diet is to be more informed about what you’re eating, so spend a little bit more time at the supermarket reading labels: you may be surprised by what you find.

First off, read the ingredients list: the shorter the better, and if you can’t recognize ingredients, or the ingredients you do recognize are very highly processed, you probably want to put that package back on the shelf. (Here are the top 4 things nutritionists look for on a food label.)

High-fructose corn syrup is a great example. It isn’t just bad for you; it’s also unsustainable to produce. Corn is a heavily subsidized crop in the U.S., so many farmers opt to grow only corn, reducing the biodiversity of farms. Growing just one crop makes it impossible for farmers to rotate crops, thus sapping certain compounds out of the soil entirely and contributing to disease and pest cycles that are difficult to break.

Next, look for certifications on your labels–not just USDA organic (we’ll get to that in a second), but also third party verifications like the Non-GMO Project. This label is a great one for ensuring that you’re not buying foods containing genetically modified organisms. While the jury’s still out as to whether GMOs are actually bad for you, one thing’s for sure: they’re unsustainable.

Most genetically modified organisms in the American food chain are designed to resist certain herbicides, like glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, or to produce their own pesticides or insecticides, like Bt corn and soybeans, which have been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides using genes from the bacteria B. thuringiensis. While some studies claim that this pesticide is not toxic to humans, others disagree; one 1999 study shows that Bt toxin created auto-immune responses in farmers. Consuming these products has led to the Bt toxin being detected in the blood of a whopping 93 percent of pregnant women tested, 80 percent of babies, and 67 percent of non-pregnant women, according to a 2011 study.

To top it all off, these crops are grown to be monocultures, meaning that they cause damage to the soil and further reduce biodiversity.

By staying informed about what you’re buying, you can avoid participating in these unsustainable practices.

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3. Eat Seasonally

Eating as ethically as possible means eating as locally as possible, and the first step to eating locally is eating seasonally. Sure, you can buy strawberries in December, grown in Mexico and shipped to the US in cold trucks, but why would you want to?

Instead, find out what is locally available to you, and learn to embrace these foods. In October, you’ll have tons of winter squash and sweet...

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