Food for thought: What we eat can help nature and the planet.
By Joao Campari, Global Leader, Food, WWF International
As millions around the globe turn off their lights for Earth Hour this Saturday 30 March 2019 at 8:30 PM, the world’s largest grassroots movement for the environment is set to unite people to show their commitment to protect the planet. With nature declining like never before, coupled with the ever-present challenge of climate change, Earth Hour 2019 will focus on raising awareness on why nature matters and inspiring global action on conserving nature.
When we think of food, we tend to think of all the great things that come with it. The tastes, the aromas, the memories of special times celebrated. What we don’t think about is the natural capital that went into producing our food.
Recently, WWF conducted a global survey of over 11,000 people of varying ages, incomes and social circumstances, to understand if the public realises the impacts our food has on nature. The survey was conducted in Australia, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, The Netherlands, Malaysia, South Africa, United Kingdom and USA. The results were striking.
On the whole, awareness of the issue is incredibly low. Just nine per cent of respondents realize the extent of the problem. Although we depend on nature for our food, how we currently produce and consume it is the single biggest threat to our planet. The food system uses most of our land and water, is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss and deforestation, and causes around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Notably, young people (aged 18–24) are least aware of the problem, with 40 per cent thinking the problem is insignificant at best — 11 per cent think the problem doesn’t even exist.
You might be aware that you can help protect nature by being more energy-conscious, by recycling, or by cutting out single-use plastics. But for most of us, food is one of the easiest ways to improve the health of our planet. What we eat provides us with multiple chances a day to make positive choices that directly help nature.
Our diets are very personal, influenced by traditions, and highly affected by what is available and affordable. We all want to eat the foods we love — and with just a little effort it will be possible to continue to do so while making better choices, for both our planet’s health and our own.
We should all strive to adopt balanced and better diets. That means eating a wide variety of food and not having too much of any one thing. Right now, around 75 per cent of the world’s food comes from just five animals and 12 plants — even though there are around 390,000 thousands different edible plants available! That means we’re using a lot of our land for just a few things, and leaving less room for nature. Balance in our diets can help reduce emissions and protect biodiversity, while ensuring we can still enjoy everything we love in moderation.
But we shouldn’t just eat more different types of food — we should make sure what we eat is better produced. That means the ingredients haven’t caused things like deforestation or soil and water pollution. As much as possible, we should make efforts to understand how what we eat affects nature as well as our bodies — sustainability certifications on food packaging is one useful source of this information.
It might sound obvious, but we also need to make sure we actually eat our food. One-third of all food produced never gets eaten, which isn’t just a waste of money and calories but also a massive waste of all the water, energy and land that went into its production. By shopping, cooking and serving food smarter, it is possible to save the third of food we are currently wasting.
And of course, we must call on businesses and governments to implement policies which make the production, selling, distribution and serving of food fair and sustainable. A strong consumer voice could significantly shift behaviour, influence governments to innovate policy, and prompt companies to establish a new set of business ethics that align human and planetary health.
We can make the food system work for people and nature. By working together, we all have the power to bring food to the top of the conservation agenda and help protect our global food security. To do that, we, consumers, need to deal with food in a different way and seal a new contract with the planet — after all, nature matters and without it, we won’t be able to enjoy the food we love.