Does what you eat impact the environment?
Don’t you love how food has to do with everything? From politics, to art, even sustainability! My internship site is trying to become more sustainable so they wanted me to put together a demo for sustainable eating, and I actually learned a lot! I always try to look it these topics from a cynical perspective, because (unfortunately) my audience will too. People love to contradict nutrition, so I try to be prepared. So why does eating more sustainable really matter? Here’s my analysis:
What is happening
As countries are developing better economies, they are also producing more food (notice that I didn’t say eating more food). This makes sense because when I have more money I don’t monitor what I buy at the grocery store as much and I buy more food that I may not end up eating. This is happening to entire countries. It isn’t actually a bad phenomenon, because the world has a lot of people it needs to feed. Amazing technological advancements in agriculture and food production has helped the world not starve to death, but now many people are dying from being over fed(from stroke, diabetes, cancer, etc.) People aren’t exactly eating bunches of spinach. They’re eating Little Debbies and Ramen. People are also eating out more often. And restaurants have to estimate how much food to buy, which means more food is thrown away, as opposed to just buying your food from the grocery store for the exact amount you need for your family. Restaurants have to estimate how many customers they think they’ll have and buy the food a couple of days in advance. What does this have to do with sustainability? Stay tuned…
If you didn’t already know, sustainability can mean a lot of different things. The root is “to sustain” or last for a very long time. So what I mean in this article is eating food that will help the earth last for a very long time. In a roundabout way I guess I also mean food that will also help people “last a very long time”. But anyway, producing food has a big impact on the world’s resources. Growing food uses a lot of water, land, soil, and emits many greenhouse gases that cause the world to warm- “global warming”. Meat specifically, has the biggest detrimental impact to the environment. Farmers have to use water to grow the wheat and to feed to the animals. Cows emit lots of greenhouse gas (through burping) that contributes to global warming. Meat, dairy, and corn products (high fructose corn syrup, chips, etc) emit 69% of the total greenhouse gases for all food. That leaves the healthier food (fight, eggs, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables) to emit only about 30% of the detrimental gasses.
Phosphorus is used for fertilizer for plants, and this is an extremely valuable resource because it only takes like 1000’s of years to make- no biggie right? Wrong. Also- 60% of the cow isn’t even used! Like the bones, head, feet, skin, etc is just wasted at the slaughter house. There’s no way to safely reuse these pieces of the cow, so it just goes to the landfill. This means all of the resources to make the animal are wasted. Meanwhile all of the vegetable can be used by either consumption or composting.
Finally, food waste negatively impacts the environment because valuable resources are going right into the trash. Unless you recycle or compost, your trash is being burned at landfills which emits even more harmful greenhouse gasses! With food waste coming from restaurants, grocery stores, and even your home this can really add up.
But this is all inevitable, right? Don’t we have to have food?? Yes and no…
What you can do about it!
Okay I know this is a lot of information, and this is only really skimming the surface. But can you really do anything about it? Yes! Researchers predict that there will be an 80% increase in emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. If the whole population switched to a more plant-based or even just Mediterranean diet there would be no change in the amount of greenhouse gases (which is a benefit!) And there would be an estimated 16-41% decrease in diabetes and a 20-26% decrease in coronary heart disease. Eating more plants, beans, and less refined sugar uses less environmental resources and is better for your health!
I’m very bad about not doing something if it doesn’t have a direct impact, so that’s kind of how I feel about trying to help the environment (like what can 1 person really do?) but think about other shifts in the marketplace because of what consumers have demanded- more people bought gluten-free so companies made more of these products. People watch their sodium, so Campbell’s soup is trying to figure out how to create healthier products to keep up. You can make a difference as a consumer, especially if you educate your friends and their educate their friends and so on. And honestly, you should be eating these healthy foods so you don’t eventually get sick (not only because of the environment).
Other countries have already started implementing public policy to promote more plant-based eating on the basis of it being better for the environment. You can see that in these 2 examples- Belgium and the Netherlands put red meat in a “eat less” category. America hasn’t caught on yet- but it’s possible!
Belgium’s food guide- notice meat is in the “eat less” area
The Netherland’s food guide
I want to be clear that I’m not saying that you need to be totally plant-based or vegan (you know that I don’t like any sort of strict diet), but maybe be a little more conscious of your meat intake. Could you do chili beans tonight for dinner instead of beef? Could you order falafel instead of chicken shawarma? Fried tofu instead of fried chicken? Little things do add up
So finally what can you really do in your everyday life to help?
1. Eat less meat when you can- even one day a week helps so much! This is the biggest impact on the environment
2. Eat local or organic more often- transporting food emits green house gas (but not as much as making meat!) and organic farming practices are better for the soil and emit less gasses
3. Only buy what you need- make a realistic list of what you’ll eat for the week and buy only that. OR you can try to preserve food that is about to go bad
4. If you vegetables start to go bad, then compost! This helps create more soil for the next plant to be grown.