Right now, there are around 7 billion people on earth. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. And unfortunately, not everyone ends up getting fed enough; today there are more than three billion people who are malnourished. For those of us who do get enough to eat, we aren’t exactly eating the ‘right’ things. To put it into perspective, in 2050 the world population will reach almost 10 billion people. That’s an even higher number of people to feed, considering the current climate. Therefore it is necessary to transform our food systems into something more sustainable to try and make sure that everyone everywhere has access to enough healthy food.
Transforming our food systems first requires us to understand the current situation. The production of food contributes to approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, where practically half of which comes from the livestock industry. That’s the meat industry. 40% of global land and up to 70% of the world’s fresh water is used to produce food. To add to its staggering use of resources, the food industry is the biggest factor threatening species with extinction. We’re all too familiar with deforestation and its impacts on the environment, like loss of habitats to clear space for agriculture. And while agriculture does have negative impacts on the environment, it’s also one of the industries seriously suffering from a changing climate with shifting environmental conditions.
Given the situation, it makes sense to try and switch up to a more sustainable approach where we rethink how we produce and how we consume food. That all seems extremely overwhelming, because in the face of so many facts and figures, what could you possibly do? Well, you can start by moving towards a more sustainable diet. A study noted that the dietary choices we make on what and how much we choose to eat have a large impact on both the planet’s and our own health.
There’s no exact definition of what a sustainable diet which makes life a little more complicated, but in its most basic sense, Harvard describes it as a diet that is “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources”. This means that a sustainable diet is not a universal one, location plays a large role in defining what is seasonal and local. What is sustainable for someone in Mexico to eat would naturally not be the same for someone to say living in Russia. With that said, there are a few universal general guidelines we can follow, and luckily someone’s already crunched the numbers. The EAT-Lancet report has tried to define a culturally flexible global diet that meets our nutritional needs while also meeting environmental objectives. To help you navigate through the massive amount of information available, I’ve summarized some helpful key tips below to guide you to a more sustainable diet.
Treat Meat Like a Treat: Dietary Changes Towards Healthier and More Plant-Based Diets
People living in middle-income and developed countries, and wealthier people in developing countries, typically eat more meat and consume more animal products than they actually need. Which ends up harming the environment and their health too. A shift to more plant-based diets could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the food system by more than half. For those of us not extremely keen on losing meat and convinced that nothing could ever compare to it, there are more and more plant-based alternatives that are making grounds on capturing all the things we love about it. As one of those reluctant people, I’ve been experimenting with different meat substitutes (because I want to do my bit to try and save the planet!) and discovered that with some spices, a pea protein, spaghetti, and bolognese is as good as its beef equivalent. In fact, it’s a lot better. Plant-based foods tend to have a lower planetary impact than animal-based foods. Change is hard, but it’s also important and doesn’t have to be all at once. A vegan diet or even a vegetarian one is great, but so are the smaller steps we can take, like switching out your milk for oat or rice milk. Then maybe replacing your chili con carne with chili sin carne. If in doubt, just treat meat like a treat, something to occasionally enjoy once a week. It’s about making the little choices every day. So choose the veggie burger instead of the beef one.
Save Your Leftovers: Reductions in Food Loss and Waste
Waste not, want not. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at saving our leftovers. FAO found that every year, around one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption gets lost or wasted, that’s approximately 1.3 billion tons. 1.3 billion tons of food that, through a little effort and innovation, could have been consumed. We’re all a little bit guilty of being too lazy to find a lunchbox after dinner, and casually scrapping those last few spoons of food into the bin. It seems innocent enough, but it adds up quickly. To exactly 222 million tons of wasted food for those of us in rich countries in the West. To put that number into perspective, that wasted food is equivalent to the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons). So next time you consider chucking those last scraps, find that lunchbox and put your culinary skills to the test to reinvent it into something even tastier. Even those vegetable cutoffs can be transformed into a gourmet vegetable stock.
Food waste isn’t only an at-home phenomenon. At the supermarkets and retail level, large quantities of food are wasted because they don’t meet the quality standards. To be clear, there isn’t always anything actually wrong with the product, only that retail companies over-emphasize appearance. That’s why when you find your way into the fruit and veg aisle, everything is practically identical. In fact, supermarkets only pay so much attention to appearance, because we as consumers do. Buffets and hotels are also a notorious culprit of overproducing food and then throwing a whole lot of it away. Too Good to Go is an initiative revolutionizing food waste, enlisting supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, and don’t forget us – the consumers – to invest in selling (and eating) the food that would have gone to waste at a cheaper price.
Every Little Bit Counts: A Sum Up
We like what we like, and sometimes it takes a little persuading for us to try something new. I didn’t realize quite how narrow our tastes were till I found out that we get around 75 percent of our total calories from just 12 crops and five animals, and they aren’t the most sustainable crops either. I think it’s safe to say that its time we spiced things up a little bit. Transforming our food systems requires a combined effort from everyone along the food chain– from producers, transporters, and consumers. So on our end, we need to invest a little more time and energy into the little things, because they have big differences. A Meatless Monday perhaps, investing in some lunchboxes, or increasing our plant-based products is a very good place to start. What is important to realize is that we should be eating with our health and the planet’s health in mind. If you’re still trying to wrap your head around the difference, you can make with a simple shift in diet. Go ahead and calculate what your diet’s carbon footprint looks like on BBC’s climate change food calculator. Though simple, it’s a great (and terrifying) way to see how our food choices impact the environment. A little more self-awareness will do all of us, and most importantly the planet, some good.