Have you ever wondered how the food we eat or our diet affects our environment?
In this post, we will do our best to break this down into two parts, because generally speaking, we all fall into a plant or animal-based diet. There is now a growing trend of people who sit in-between, that is, float between animal and plant-based foods.
So, which diet is best for our environment?
Food plays a significant role in all our lives. We need to eat to survive, but over the years, what and how we eat is based on more than just staying alive. It is also about our beliefs, traditions and feelings. It opens doors to different cultural experiences, and, only recently, are we starting to understand the impact of our diet on the environment.
Much of the food we eat, and how it gets to our tables, has changed rapidly over the years. While people in some parts of the world do not have enough to eat, others suffer from obesity. Thousands if not millions of tonnes of food are wasted, and crops are converted into biofuels to feed cars instead of people.
“Ensuring everyone in the world has access to a nutritious diet in a sustainable way is one of the greatest challenges we face”
As the world population has expanded and increased their wealth, the demand for food has also increased, leading to an increase in its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The picture below shows the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions generated from the food we consume globally.
According to research by the world economic forum, it found that red meat is the most emissions-intensive food we consume. The image above also illustrates this finding.
A diet based on food that comes from high on the food chain or after extensive processing tends to require more energy and releases more global warming pollution into the air.
Environmental impact of an Animal based diet
The primary source of emission from a diet packed with lamb and beef is methane. This process is due to the fermentation process in which bacteria converts feed into energy in the animals’ stomachs. Methane is known to be about 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. NRDC (Natural Resource Defence Council) estimates that if all Americans eliminated just one-quarter pound serving of beef per week, the reduction in global warming gas emissions would be equivalent to taking four to six million cars off the road.
We also found that there are many other contributing factors to global emission from an animal-based diet which we have grouped below
- Energy: Animals, in particular cows, need a lot of food and water. To keep them healthy, they need to be well feed and kept warm, which required a lot of energy and resources. The “carbon footprint” of hamburger, for example, includes all of the fossil fuels that went into producing the fertilizer and pumping the irrigation water to grow the corn that fed the cow and may also include emissions that result from converting forest land to grazing land. Seafood can also contribute to significant global warming pollution. Open-ocean fishing fleets depend entirely on fossil fuels, emitting an estimated 130 million tons of CO2 each year.
- Water Pollution: According to the EPA (Environmental protection agency), raising animals for food is the leading cause of water pollution. This finding is mainly due to the runoff of nitrogen and excess nutrients from agricultural production systems. This form of pollution is called Eutrophication.
- Freshwater: The agricultural sector is highly dependent on water, fresh water to be exact, and data is showing that the planet is facing growing water constraints because freshwater reservoirs and aquifers are drying up. A 2013 study found that farming accounts for 92% of our freshwater, with nearly a third of that related to animal products.
- Land use: As shown in the image above, livestock is the largest user of habitable land resources. It contributes to land degradation, biodiversity loss and deforestation. Global demand increases if the grain is feed to livestock, which inevitably drives up prices and makes it harder for the poor to feed themselves. Grain could instead be used to people directly, and water used to grow crops. If all the grain used to feed livestock are feed to humans, an extra 3.5 billion people could be fed
Environmental impact of a plant-based diet
Plant-based diets emphasize whole foods that come from plants. These could be vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits.
As shown in the illustration below, about a quarter of the overall emissions from food comes from crop production, which is significantly less than the greenhouse gas emission produced from livestock farming.
It is also worth noting that water pollution also occurs from crop production due to the fertilizers and pesticides used to enhance or optimize production. However, this is also significantly less than those produced by livestock farming.
Cocoa, which features in most diets, including plant-based, is a significant driver of tropical deforestation. It is one of the most significant contributors to global biodiversity loss after beef, pork, and poultry meat, and as demand has gone up, so has the amount of land cleared for use by cocoa plantations. An alternative source of cocoa will need to be found or reduction in our consumption of cocoa-based product is the solution to reduce its greenhouse footprint.
To conclude, we believe reducing consumption of animal products is essential if we are to reduce our carbon footprint and also meet global greenhouse gas emissions targets – which are required to mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change.
We hear stories of people advocating the world to abandon livestock farming completely. Ideally, this is what our planet needs to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are several reasons this would prove very challenging, as livestock is not only an essential source of income for many but can also be a vital source of nutrition in low-income settings. Small quantities of meats and dairy can be a vital source of protein, and other nutrients in lower-income countries as diets tend to lack in variation.
To this end, we strongly believe in a menu of solutions as the answer to reducing emissions in the food sector. But before we get to that, we would like to address a particular misconception that purchasing food produced locally has a significant impact in helping to reduce your carbon footprint. This assumption is proven to be untrue, for example, importing lettuce produced in Spain to the UK during winter season results in three to eight times lower emissions than producing it locally. Another study also shows that tomatoes produced in Sweden used ten times as much energy as importing tomatoes produced in Southern Europe where they were in-season. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation make up a small amount of emissions from food, and, what you eat is significantly more important than where your food has travelled from.
Menu of solutions
So, what can we do to reduce our footprint on an individual basis? Well there are a range of options for both consumers and producers
For meat-loving consumers, eating less meat has to be top of the list. However, switching to lower impact meats such as chicken, eggs or pork is the most effective way for individuals to reduce their dietary carbon footprint.
However, as mentioned previously switching to a more plant-based source of protein such as tofu, nuts, peas and beans, if your situation allows you is the ultimate goal.
Adding more fruits, vegetables, and grains to your diet also helps, especially if you look for fresh foods with the fewest process steps from farm to plate. Freezing, packaging, processing, cooking, and refrigerating food all increase energy use. A study reports that purchasing a frozen bag of carrots has nearly three times the level of pollution, relative to buying a fresh bunch of carrots.
We also have to be careful, as buying fresh foods also leads to other problems, particularly in the amount of waste produced. A research study estimated that the average household wastes 14% of its food purchases which has been equated to about US$940 billion per year in economic losses globally as a result of food loss and waste.
For producers, understanding and adopting the best farm and land management practices can mitigate the highest impacts of carbon emission from production.
There are now a growing number of companies (Beyond meat, Impossible burger) using technology that make low carbon plant-based alternatives, which are scalable and affordable. And, as time goes on due to constant innovation, the price of these foods will be similar or even cheaper to the meat options we are used to purchasing.