Future

How does our diet impact our environment?

Our diets are taking a significant toll on the planet. Current food systems are leading to rapid biodiversity loss and are contributing to climate change, water degradation and deforestation.

Words:
Charlotte Cameron
Images:
Shutterstock
Diet impact our environment
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Producing the food that we eat emits a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with more than half of these emissions coming from animal products.  

By 2050 our population is expected to grow by nearly two billion people, and by this time it’s believed that the environmental impact of our food system could increase by as much as 90%.  How will current food systems withstand this, and how will climate change – in part caused by these systems – impact food security? Even now there is a growing “food apartheid” occurring which “divides those with access to an abundance of nutritious food and those who have been denied that access due to systemic injustice”, according to Project Regeneration.  

It’s clear that without shifts in the way we produce food, our global climate targets cannot be met. And this transition requires changes in consumer behaviour, as well as action from businesses and government to support and incentivise more sustainable practices. 

Food systems and climate change

With food production and processing accounting for a large share of our global GHG emissions, reducing the footprint associated with our food will be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.  

Typically, around 80% of the emissions associated with food comes from the land use and through processes at the farm stage. The remainder of the overall footprint is made up from activities after the production stage including packaging and transportation. On average, “food miles”, the emissions from transporting food, contribute less to emissions than packaging.  

With twice as many land use emissions coming from land use for livestocks as for crops for human consumption, it is no wonder that the raising and culling of animals for food, particularly beef, is far worse than plant-based foods for the environment. In fact, 57% of all food production emissions come from the use of animals for food and for livestock feed.  

What’s particularly disheartening is the emissions associated with the huge amount of avoidable food waste that occurs. Either being spilled or spoiled during supply chain processes or wasted by retailers and consumers, food waste accounts for around 6% of global GHG emissions. One third of all food produced globally goes to waste, and if it were a country, it would be the third largest emitter. 

In addition to being one of the major contributors to global GHG emissions, our food systems are the primary cause of biodiversity loss. While we are more aware of the critical role biodiversity plays in supporting the health of our planet, biodiversity loss is occurring faster than at any point in history. Half of the world’s habitable land is now used for agriculture which has meant the clearing of natural ecosystems and ultimately the loss of critical biodiversity. Of the 28,000 species evaluated to be threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, agriculture is listed as a threat for 24,000 of them.  

The intensification of agriculture, the practices that increase agricultural outputs like fertilizers, is in some regions the most damaging for biodiversity. Uses of things like pesticides and fertilizers have led to issues like pollution of water bodies. In addition to this, agriculture accounts for around 70% of global freshwater withdrawals.  

Our food and climate change are interconnected. What we eat and how we produce it directly impacts the climate crisis, and in turn the climate crisis will impact of food supply and production.  

Environmental impact of some of our favourite foods

Avocado – Two small avocados in a packet has a carbon footprint of 846.36 grams, almost twice the amount of a kilo of bananas.

Almonds – 1kg of almonds uses 4,134 litres of water. That’s enough to fill over 50 bathtubs.

Cocoa – 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa spurring massive deforestation, particularly in the Ivory Coast.

Tofu – Tofu made with soya from the deforested land in the Brazilian rainforest has a carbon footprint twice that of chicken.

Coffee – On average, coffee farmers in developing countries receive only 10% of the retail price. In the hunt for increased output, carbon intensive methods such as monocropping and ‘sun cultivation’ are now prevalent.

How to eat better for the environment

It can sometimes feel as though our individual actions are insurmountable in the face of the climate crisis. But small changes to your diet can reduce your own carbon footprint significantly, and if you scale that globally, will help put us on track to a more sustainable planet fit for all.  

Here are some actions you can take to reduce the carbon footprint of your diet:  

Planning meals ahead

Ensure minimal wastage by planning meals where possible, freezing leftovers and buying produce individually rather than in packets.  

Pick for seasonality

When possible, try to eat seasonally and shop locally to reduce the travel emissions associated with your food. As well as supporting your community, produce that is in season locally is often fresher and tastier! 

Reduce meat and dairy intake

If you can’t commit to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, why not try a flexitarian one? This means eating plant-based foods while only consuming animal products in moderation.  Research by Oxford University scientist Joseph Poore shows that if every family in the UK swapped a red meat meal to a plant-based one just once a week, the environmental impact would be the same as taking 16 million cars off the road for a year.  

Limit highly processed meat substitutes 

As more people adopt vegan or vegetarian lifestyles, the market for meat substitutes has exploded, however studies are limited when it comes to the environmental impact of these highly processed plant-based meats. Many of these products are made from a wide range of ingredients including soybean, which is linked to problems including deforestation and displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples.  

Diversify foods

An incredible 75% of the world’s food supply comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. Diversifying our diets will have major benefits, not only in a health sense, but for farmers, communities, and the environment. 

Grow your own!

Healthy, easy, and cheap, growing your own produce not only helps the environment but has benefits for your mind and body too.  

While our actions as consumers can shift demand away from carbon-intensive practises and food products, businesses also play a role in transforming the industry.  

Organisations such as Planet Mark certified Fooditude, a contract catering service, are showing a commitment to reducing their impact on the planet. Fooditude work on sustainable food waste management though reducing waste in all parts of its supply chain, and is working with food waste reduction organisations such as FoodCycle, OLIO and Orca.  

They are also helping consumers to understand the carbon footprint associated with their food choices with educational tools such as their glossary of sustainability terms, and other SMEs to reduce their emissions with their involvement in the Planet Mark and Google Digital Garage workshops.  

Another Planet Mark member, Dash Water, is helping to combat food waste by using misshapen or wonky fruit in their drinks that would otherwise be thrown out. With up to 40% of fruit and vegetables grown in the UK going to waste, their mission is to put out 150 million cans in the next five years, saving 2,500 tonnes of wonky fruit and vegetables in the process.  
 

There is no one solution to the problems our food systems are causing. It will require collective and unified action across governments, businesses and individuals to ensure support for a growing population where people can eat well without harming the planet.