Can our diets really be warming the planet?

How we can bring sustainability to the table


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The two biggest challenges humanity is facing today: Climate Change and Chronic Diseases

What does this have to do with our plates? The way our food system works is often destructive and disrespectful for the health of the planet and people. The more I study nutrition and food systems, the more I begin to see this as a symptom of disconnect from the earth and its living systems that predominates the modern culture. We are increasingly attempting to farm the whole earth to feed people, forgetting that natural resources are finite and the ecosystems of the earth are not there for us to simply gorge on, but to sustain the climate and the chemical balance of the entire planet.

In a similar tone of urgency, the chronic epidemic of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (also called diseases of affluence) is taking unprecedented numbers across the globe, with more and more countries and cultures adopting a western lifestyle and diet. Why? Certainly one answer to this is that “unhealthy” foods have become increasingly affordable and available. The health care system has accommodated these health challenges to the extent that most people lack awareness and education of these diseases being largely preventable.

Easy, cheap, and tasty are the common basic food criteria adopted nowadays. I believe it is fair to say that the carbon footprint awareness hasn’t reached the majority whilst food shopping, nor has the food system’s role in the climate change been fully recognised as a core factor. Yet!

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With the recent media coverage of the climate situation, it is clearer than ever that we need to think GLOBALLY and act LOCALLY.

What can we do to tackle climate change? Most people don’t have the finances for solar panels or electric cars, so switching to green energy sources, choosing public transport and local vacations might be all that seems possible. Whilst they are all needed and valuable, one of the most undermined environmental change every single human has, is FOOD and dietary preferences.

Eating represents an immediate opportunity for taking individual climate action! Every single time we purchase food we vote for either the EARTH and its recovery, or for worsening the environmental and ecological challenges we are faced with today.

“The consequences of your daily food choices go well beyond whether or not you’ll be able to fit into your “skinny jeans” tomorrow. Your choices resonate high up there into the atmosphere, and like the extra fat cells on your hips, they’ll linger there for a long time unless you do something about them” Kate Geagan

The good news is that what is good for the planet is also good for people’s health and wellbeing. To both cut our carbon footprint and improve our health we need to change what we eat by focussing on replacing the junk foods with more real, fresh, local foods.

Furthermore, a more climate oriented diet does not have to come with a financial burden. The myth of health being a costly privilege is long out-dated and people don’t need to spend more to eat better. The bottom line is moving away from unhealthy comfort eating habits and becoming more conscious and informed consumers.

6 Easy steps to a sustainable diet

1 Skip beef and cheese. While all livestock have a carbon footprint, ruminant animals release the most greenhouse gas emissions by far, not only by the methane release (a greenhouse gas emission 20 to 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide) but also emissions resulted from the production of crops used for animal feed, its usage of water as well as deforestation and land use. Furthermore, according to a report from University of Wisconsin, it takes approximately 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese and no, grass fed is no better from the carbon emissions perspective. The Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM), clearly states that all beef, cheese, and dairy are high carbon foods, regardless of how they are raised. Let me put it this way: no other food is likely to have as significant an impact on your dietary carbon footprint as beef and cheese.

Source: Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM) by Food And Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

2 Choose Green and Clean Foods. This is usually going to be the more plant based, the more natural, the more organic, the less it is processed and finally, the fewer items on the ingredients list, the better chances of better health and a low carbon footprint diet.

3 Cut your waste. Food waste is a global public policy issue. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimate that one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts for approximately 1.3 billion tonnes per year. In the UK alone, 10 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted each year. This has serious economic, environmental and social implications as the energy involved in growing and transporting that food is also wasted. Additionally, as food decomposes in landfills, it emits one of the worst gases of all — methane.

Try planning your meals ahead according to realistic ideas of how much you will eat. In this marketing era, it is way too easy to buy greater amounts of food just because it was on offer. Implement strategies for left-overs, regularly check your fridge for foods about to go bad or forgotten at the bottom shelf. Do you buy more than you need? If you are lucky enough to have a garden, try composting your food waste. It is fun, connecting and rewarding!

4 Local and seasonal. Food miles are a way of attempting to measure how far food has travelled before it reaches the consumer. The more miles, the longer it has travelled to your plate, the worst environmental impact. It is also hugely important what method of transport was used. As a rule, food of any kind transported by airplane is a high-carbon choice with greenhouse gases up to 30 times more than that of food shipped by boat from the same point on the globe. Plus knowing that our food is grown locally provides connection and security to the customers. Whilst oftentimes understanding the environmental impact of a particular food is multifactorial and too complex to draw a simple “good or bad”, the number of miles between one country to another never changes!

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Picking my first self-grown tomato this summer was simply thrilling!

Seasonal, do we even remember what it means? Nowadays we are so disconnected from our food sources that we have majorly lost track of what grows locally or in season. One way to tackle this problem is to join your local organic farmer’s veg box scheme (this is also bound to motivate you into cooking more!), connect with the local farmer markets, and connect to your local food producers. Should you feel a bit more adventurous, consider engaging with the joys of gardening! There are all sorts of ways of doing this, even at very low scales.

5 Make the packaging your problem too. Do your job at choosing foods that are not overly packaged and if they are, make sure to recycle if you can’t reuse it. One thing is clear, what happens to the food packaging is critical in determining the actual carbon footprint of that food. Days are over for single use plastic or cardboard items. Make sure to always be equipped with your reusable items: cutlery, water bottle, shopping bag, lunch box, coffee cup.

6 Is your kitchen ready to go sustainable? Just as you change your light bulbs for greener choices, you also need to be aware of your refrigerator, freezer, cooking hub and other food appliances you have in the kitchen for their energy consumption and efficiency. Generally it is a matter of the older, the more likely to be less energy efficient. The initial investment in replacing for newer versions will eventually be compensated by the lower energy bills overtime.

This is not about emphasising yet another area of our life we should feel guilty or overwhelmed about, but about understanding the power we have as food consumers.

Unlike other actions and ways we can join the green movement, we all engage with our food on a daily basis. We need to make efforts and evolve from the mentality “ how it impacts me over the next 5 minutes, consequences will be dealt with later” into a more wholesome time frame. We need to ask ourselves what sort of foods we want to feed ourselves and our families, what sort of body we want to spend our days in, and equally important, what sort of environment do we want to support with our food choices?

Often people aren’t taking any action at all because they don’t believe they can be great at it. I cannot emphasize this enough, no matter your current eating behaviour, you HAVE a huge impact on the environment and your own health already! I believe our responsibility is to strive to make that a positive impact, starting with your next meal.

“Limiting climate warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC

Resources:

Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM) by Food And Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, July Revision 2018 à http://www.fao.org/gleam/results/en/

Sustainable Cheese Production: Understand the Carbon Footprint of Cheese- Technical Report, Horacio et al, 2011

GoGreen GetLean” by Kate Geagan

Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States, Christopher et al, 2008 à https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/es702969f

“Food Waste in England”, by House of Commons, 2016–17 à https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmenvfru/429/429.pdf

“The Food Miles Report” Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment (S.A.F.E.) Alliance by Angela Paxton 2011 àhttp://www.safeplatform.org