Food plays an essential role in human health, culture, and economy. The idea of a healthy balanced diet has been fed to us since pre-school. But what about what’s healthy for the planet? As the world population edges closer to 10 billion by 2050, the volume of food needed to support this population will depend on ample fertile land, water, nutrients, and a stable climate (Morawicki and González 2018). But more importantly, it will depend on people to make sustainable choices. We hear the word “sustainability” so frequently in the media. It’s tossed around, peppered into business plans to add a little spice, but what does it really mean, and how does it impact your menu choices?
Sustainability involves meeting current needs without compromising the needs of future generations. With respect to food and diet, this means producing food at a productivity level that can support the population now and, in the future (Morawicki and González 2018). As a consumer, there are some mindful choices and behavioural changes you can make to have a more sustainable diet.
The UK sends 4.5 million tonnes of food waste to landfills each year, where it then decomposes anaerobically, releasing harmful greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrogenous oxide, into the atmosphere. Thus, contributing to climate change. 20 – 40 % of food is discarded before it even reaches supermarket shelves (FAO, 2018). On a global scale, one-third of the food produced is discarded- that’s 1.3 billion tonnes of food. Of the food that is thrown away in the EU, 50% is fresh produce. When you consider that 820 million people are faced with food shortages, it is shocking how much we waste (FAO, 2018).
Reducing your food waste production only requires some small lifestyle changes, such as creating a shopping list, only buying what you need, checking best before dates before purchasing, meal planning, freezing food so it lasts longer, donating unwanted food to food banks, and storing leftovers for another meal. These habits are not only sustainable, they will also help you save money. Rather than discarding your food waste with the rest of your rubbish, consider starting a compost heap, or disposing of your food waste separately in a food waste bin, so it can be collected and disposed of properly by your local council. By starting your own compost heap, you reduce the waste you send to landfills, and it can be used in your garden as a natural fertiliser.
Plastic waste associated with the food industry is also a major issue, with 63% of single-use plastics discarded in the USA in 2014 coming from food packaging (EPA, 2017). In the USA, 100 million plastic utensils are used and discarded every day, taking roughly 1000 years for each plastic utensil to decompose, and with only 91% of plastics being recyclable, this is creating a massive problem with pollution both on land and in the oceans (Root 2019; Lindwall 2020). It is predicted by 2050, there will be more plastic, by weight, in the ocean than fish (World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, 2016). Currently, there is a 79,000-tonne floating mass of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean, named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that is twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France (Lebreton et al., 2018). The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one of the five plastic accumulation patches floating in our oceans (Riessen et al, 2015; Chen et al, 2017; Laurant and Lebreton et al, 2017;).
Reducing your dependency on single-use plastic is an important lifestyle change when making your diet more sustainable. Consider buying foods packaged in recyclable packaging, as well as making small lifestyle changes like bringing a reusable coffee cup, cutlery, reusable straw, or grocery bag with you when you’re out and about.
The term “food miles” is often used to describe the distance the food consume has travelled to get to your dinner plate. The larger the food miles on a product, the more resources use and carbon emissions emitted. Locally produced food, such as home-grown or from the farmer’s market, have smaller food miles and thus have a smaller carbon footprint. The carbon emissions from foods transported by air are 10 times greater than those transported by road, and 50 times greater than those transported via shipping. Air travel is typically favoured for highly valuable and perishable goods, for example, your out-of-season strawberries. Such products account for 11% of the UK’s food transport emissions (Allen, nd). In fact, the transportation of food in the UK accounts for 25% of the miles covered by heavy goods vehicles, producing 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year (Ho and Gala 2005). And then you have to factor in the distance you travel to purchase the food. In the UK, the average person will travel 135 miles a year in the car to purchase food. Nevertheless, foods grown out of season in heated greenhouses can have a higher carbon footprint than foods imported from hotter countries (Allen, nd). Additionally, food production still has a greater environmental impact than food transportation, creating 32% of the global terrestrial acidification and 78% of the eutrophication (Poore and Nemecek 2019).
Growing your own food is one way you can eat more sustainably. Supporting your local farmer’s market is another way you can be more sustainable, as produce sold at farmer’s market have lower production volumes and are often farmed using less environmentally damaging practices than industrialised farming. Plus supporting local farmer’s also helps the local economy. Moreover, purchasing foods that are in season is another fantastic way to eat more sustainably.
Raspberries, courgettes, asparagus, chard, Aubergines, beetroot, broad beans, cauliflower, cherries, French beans, artichokes, gooseberries, lettuce, new potatoes, peas, peppers, radishes, rhubarb, samphire, spring onions, strawberries, and watercress are all in season in the month of June in the UK! (Nice, nd).
The meat industry, in particular the beef industry, is a large contributor to the release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere. Additionally, the meat industry is the largest contributor to the mass deforestation of rainforests, with 70% of the amazon rainforest having been deforested for livestock and feed crops. Soy plantations are the second largest contributor of deforestation, however, 70-75% of the soy grown is destined to become livestock feed. The Brazillian Cerrado and Argentinian and Paraguayan Gran Chaco are also severely impacted by this deforestation (WWF 2018). Cattle ranching is the main driver in deforestation, resulting in 2.1 million hectares of forest lost each year. That’s more than double of what is deforested for palm oil and soy combined. Not only is deforestation a leading driver in biodiversity loss, it also contributes to climate change. Forests are vital carbon stores and when deforested, that carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere. In addition to being environmentally unsustainable, the meat industry also has considerable social impacts. It was found that 60% of the slave labour in Brazil was linked to the cattle ranching industry. Furthermore, cattle ranching has also been the cause of social conflict between farmers and indigenous groups over the demarcation of indigenous lands (FERN 2018).
Reducing your meat consumption, or not eating meat at all, is a great way to eat more sustainably. By reducing your red meat consumption, you can decrease your carbon footprint by 25%, and switching to a vegetarian diet reduces your carbon footprint by 50%.
Poor fisheries management and overfishing to meet high consumer demands pose the greatest threat to marine biodiversity. Fish are being harvested at an unstainable rate, resulting in a decline in stocks and entire ecosystems collapsing. The removal of apex predators, such as sharks and tuna, disrupts the balance of the ecosystem and food chain, which has a considerable impact on ecosystem health. The fishing industry is also responsible for the large masses of plastic pollution in the ocean from discarded fishing gear, which then traps and kills marine species. This has consequently led to a 30% decline in fish populations. Fishing nets make up 46% of the total mass of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Lebreton et al., 2018). Nevertheless, sustainable fishing does exist and has been successful at helping overfished stocks recover. Studies have shown that the percentage of healthy stocks is three to four times higher in sustainably certified stocks than in uncertified stocks (Froese and Proelß 2012). Fish and seafood produced in aquacultural systems also help alleviate the pressure placed on wild stocks and habitat, whilst improving food security (NOAA 2021). Aquaculture is the most resource-efficient source of protein (Sea Nutrition Partnership 2017) and accounts for more than 50% of the fish consumed globally (Cai and Zhou 2019).
When purchasing seafood look for the MSC label that indicated it has been sustainably fished, and the ASC label, indicating it has been sustainably farmed. When purchasing tuna, purchase tuna that has been caught using a pole and line, as this is the most sustainable way to catch tuna and prevents other marine species from being caught as bycatch. If you reduce your fish consumption, you are helping reduce the demand and thus minimize the pressure placed on the marine ecosystem and fish stocks.
Figure 1: MSC logo. Source: https://www.msc.org/
Figure 2: ASC logo. Source: https://www.asc-aqua.org/
Palm oil is a major ingredient found in almost half of the goods on the supermarket shelf, such as margarine, instant noodles, packaged bread, chocolate, and even beauty products and cleaning detergents (WWF, nd). Nevertheless, palm oil production is one of the leading causes of mass deforestation and biodiversity loss in Asia and contributed to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions (Vijay et al, 2016). Carbon emissions from tropical deforestation are estimated at 2.270 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year, which accounts for roughly 10% of the global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Zarin et al, 2016). Asian rainforests are vital habitats for species for nowhere else in the world, such as the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger. Both of these species are listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Endangered species, and as palm oil plantations expand, their populations are expected to continue to drastically decline. Another issue related to palm oil is the lack of transparency by companies when labelling ingredients, making it unclear if a product contains palm oil. Ingredients such as vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitate, palmolein, glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, Elaeis guineensis, palmitic acid, palm stearine, just to name a few, are all palm oil derivatives (WWF, nd). However, boycotting palm oil and palm oil derivatives is not a sustainable solution to the problem, as it simply displaces deforestation and causes an increase in alternative oil crops that may require more land and/or be equally unsustainable (Strechay, 2019; Guidon, 2020). 79% of all palm oil produced is unstainable or uncertified and sustainable palm oil accounts for 21% of the palm oil produced (Vijay et al., 2016). Supporting and purchasing products containing sustainable palm oil is a better solution than boycotting all palm oil products. Sustainable palm oil products can be easily recognised by the RSPO logo.
Figure 3: RSPO logo. Source: https://rspo.org/
10 Simple Steps to Eating Sustainably
If that was that was a lot to digest, we’ve reduced it down to 10 simple steps to help you eat your way to sustainability:
- Grow your own food
- Eat food that is in season
- Avoid purchasing food with large food miles
- Support your local farmer’s market
- Purchase foods with minimal single use plastic packaging
- Reduce the amount of meat you eat, or stop eating meat all together
- Reduce your fish consumption or simply stop eating fish
- When buying tuna, purchase line caught tuna
- Purchase products from sustainable fisheries and aquaculture
- Support sustainable palm oil
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