When it comes to eating well, we not only have to consider our own health, but the health of our planet. I have to admit, I was a little hesitant to write about this topic as I am not an expert in environmental and agricultural affairs but I have done extensive research and asked for some help from Ryan Andrews, a dietician with a keen interest in sustainable eating on writing this article. I’m offering you a non-biased view on this subject and I ask that you read it with an open mind.
“Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources.”
– FAO, 2010, Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity.
Most of us in the developed world are fortunate enough to eat what we like, when we like. We have come to expect to buy most foods all year round, from all parts of the world, often without giving much thought to where it has come from or how it was produced.
The truth is, we really ought to start putting more thought into it.
There are currently HUGE pressures on the global food system. At the moment, we need 1.6 earths to cover the resources we consume and the waste we produce. (1). Essentially, this means that at some point the earth will be unable to provide for our current population. Its not getting any easier as the demand for food is increasing with our growing population that is expected to increase from 7 billion today to over 9 billion by 2050.
To simply produce more food using our current production methods, to meet this demand, is unsustainable, as this would require more arable land, more fresh water, and more non-renewable energy, which are finite resources.
So, How do we produce more food with fewer resources to feed the growing global population?
Well for a start, if we make subtle changes to our food choices we have the potential to reduce the pressures on the global food system.
Eat Less Meat
At the risk of this being taken out of context, notice I say eat ‘less’ not ‘zero’ meat. It’s no secret that I have an omnivorous diet which is inclusive of both animal and plant foods. I was brought up in Ireland, where farming practices are very traditional, and for the most part, still are. Two of my uncles were farmers and as children we would spend a lot of our time out in the fields, helping out, playing amongst the animals and jumping from hay bale to hay bale. As stereotypical as it sounds, in most Irish households, a meal was not a meal without a piece of meat and a spud.
From a health perspective, animal products are an important source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, most importantly B12 and Iron, the latter of which is one of the most common worldwide micronutrient deficiencies. You do not need to say goodbye to your Sunday roast, but all that I ask is that you take a minute to consider what I have to say next.
The amount of meat we are consuming is simply not sustainable. Between 1997/99 and 2030, annual meat consumption in developing countries is projected to increase from 25.5 to 37 kg per person, compared with an increase from 88 to 100 kg in developed countries (2). Compare this to consumption of pulses which have been on a steady decline in developing and developed countries, with the world average remaining at around 7 kg/person/year.(3)
How is this level of animal product consumption affecting our planetary resources?
Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are those which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. The main ones to be aware of include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that GHG emissions from livestock production represent 14.5% of all GHGs produced from human activity (4). These livestock related GHGs can come directly from the animals themselves or indirectly from the resources that go into raising them. Eating more of a plant-based diet leads to fewer GHG emissions, but exactly how much is hard to predict, although it is estimated 29–70% depending on how exclusively plant based the diet is (5).
Less than 1% of the world’s water is fresh and accessible for human use (5). Climate change, population growth, and our consumption patterns are putting this small percentage further at risk.
We need a lot more water for livestock, compared to vegetables and grains. It is estimated that the production of 1kg of beef requires 43,000 Litres of water, both to raise the livestock itself and for the crops that feed it. In comparison, 1kg of grain requires only 1000 Litres (6).
There are many factors to consider with water footprints and food consumption, including how and where a crop is grown, how and where livestock are raised, and so forth. But when stepping back to consider how food is most often produced in developed nations, the water footprint from animal products tends to be greater than the water footprint from crop products of similar nutritional value. Some of the most water efficient foods include tubers, roots, pulses, vegetables, and cereal grains.
Deforestation and Land Use
Raising livestock also requires a great deal of land – both for the animals themselves and for growing the large quantities of food required to feed them. Livestock are the world’s largest user of land resources, with grazing land and cropland dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80 % of all agricultural land (7). As demand for animal products rises, the demand for land increases, often cutting down forests in the process.
However, as I say time and time again, science is never black and white and the story is always far more complex than we often appreciate. Farm animals are also important to a sustainable agricultural system and completely eliminating animal products from the diet would be counterproductive;
◦ Ruminant animals also graze on land that is unsuitable for growing crops and therefore it can be argued that they produce food for human consumption, where there would have been none.
◦ By eating grass and clover, animals are an important part of balanced rotation which allows fertile, healthy soil to be maintained.
◦ Cultivations, such as ploughing, needed to grow crops promote breakdown of organic matter in the soil which releases carbon dioxide. Under grassland, carbon can be sequestrated, locking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as soil organic matter.
◦ Animals also provide on-farm power, food security, and even collateral for credit in certain communities around the world.
As you can see, there are no simple solution but there seems to be a lot of mounting evidence for the need to reduce our consumption of animal products. I think if we are responsible when it comes to our animal product consumption, by actively trying to reduce it and trying to source it in the most sustainable way, i.e. local and organic where possible, we will all be playing a part in working towards a more sustainable future.
A simple way you can reduce your animal product consumption could be having one or two meat free days a week, or opting for a plant based meal for one or two meals each day.
What About Fish?
Well, although seafood, in theory, would be the natural alternative to land animals, our current levels of seafood consumption in the developed world are leading to significant collapses in global fish populations. By consuming less seafood, and also a wider variety of species, fish populations have a greater chance of future recovery. Filter feeders like mussels, clams, oysters, and scallops, are the most environmentally friendly as they can actually clean up ecosystems.
According to the FAO, roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption gets lost or wasted every year. In the UK alone it is estimated that annual food waste is 10 million tonnes, which has a value of over £17 billion a year, and is associated with around 20 million tonnes of GHG emissions. Furthermore, 60% of this could be avoided (8).
Simple ways you can reduce your waste:
- Shop Smart – Check your cupboards before you go shopping and create a shopping list of the things you need. Check my section on store cupboard staples for recipe inspiration on what to do with tins of food such as; chickpeas and lentils.
- Befriend Your Freezer – Freeze food such as leftovers, bread, fruit, and meat that you know you won’t be able to eat in time.
- Love Your Leftovers – Keep any leftovers for lunch the next day, add to tomorrow nights dinner, or simply pop leftovers into a freezer proof container and reuse within 2-3 months.
- Recycle of Compost – Rather than discarding peels and rotting fruits and vegetables, you can compost them and turn it into nutrient-rich fertiliser. However, not everyone has the garden space to do this so recycling your food waste via your local disposal services is another great option.
Tip – Don’t throw out your dotty bananas, peel them and cut them in half. Pop them in a Tupperware box and freeze. Add a 1/2 frozen banana to your smoothie to make them extra thick and creamy, or blend up a couple of frozen bananas for instant ice-cream.
Tip – Puree tomatoes before freezing to use for tomato sauces, stewed and soups.
Eat organic, and local, where possible
Organic agriculture is a way of farming that uses fewer pesticides and artificial fertilisers and instead uses natural methods such as crop rotation and clover to build fertility in the soil. Organic farming also aims to protect and encourage wildlife and biodiversity, and avoids the use of antibiotics for rearing livestock or genetic modification.
In order for a food to be labelled as organic in the EU, at least 95% of the ingredients must come from organically produced plants or animals. Look for the EU Green leaf logo or the Soil Association label which is an independent certification body.
However, In terms of the health benefits of organic vs non-organic food, the research has not shown consistent results with regards to showing a significant difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced food.
One downside of organic food is that it tends to be more expensive, which makes it unrealistic for most families to always opt for it. However it is usually cheaper when bought directly from a farmer or producer, using a box scheme, or at a farmers market.
Buying from local farms and eating local food, especially in season, is often a good way to support sustainable farming practices – and the local economy! It also encourages us to eat a wider variety of foods than we would when shopping in a supermarket. Most supermarkets tend to stock the same produce because of the demand, cost, and their ability to ship and store well. Because local farmers don’t need to worry about storage and transportation of their produce, they are more likely to offer a wider variety of foods that you won’t typically find in supermarkets and restaurants. One of my favourite activities is scavenging local food markets for unusual and different coloured vegetables. Unlike most supermarkets that stock only orange carrots, you can often find a rainbow of coloured carrots from white to purple!
Ps – Purple carrots have on average 9 times more polyphenols than carrots of other colours (9)
10. (10)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3659275/ (leja)