• Megan Parfitt

The environmental impact of food

The world’s food system is significantly affected by the current climate crisis, with over 811 million of the global population going to bed hungry [1]. Many assume that flying and burning fossil fuels are the sole drivers of climate change; but what if I told you that the environmental impact of food should be at the top of your list of concerns. Evidence shows that food waste produces more emissions than flying, plastic production and oil extraction [2]. Although countries are working towards achieving the UN sustainable development goals which include the goal of ending hunger [3], there is much more to be done in terms of sustainable food distribution and production.





What are the problems with current food production?

We are led to believe that buying organic and local foods are the answer to food stability, and whilst these factors are important, they only begin to start tackling the problems with food sustainability.


The amount of water needed to produce food is just as important. Meat has a significantly greater water footprint than vegetables [4], with the production of a pound of beef requiring around 1,800 gallons of water. Not only is this figure calculated from the direct use of water in beef production, but the indirect water used through processes like feeding the cattle and the water involved in transport. So, the further your food needs to travel, the more water is expended on top of fuel. Furthermore, those with diets that consist of highly processed foods use high quantities of water [5]. This includes crisps, ready-made meals, and processed snacks.


Global land use also needs to be considered. Staggeringly, half of all habitable land is used for agriculture, of which 77% is used for livestock (grazing and growing animal feed) [6]. Although land use is not something we as consumers can directly change, we can have an influence through changing the demand. By increasing the demand for plant-based options, land used for livestock will be reduced.


If you consider all the factors that have gone in to producing your food, think about how much has been wasted once it has been thrown away. It isn’t just the food (which generates methane when thrown away) that has been wasted, but all the processes and materials gone into its production. It is no wonder that around 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions are because of food waste [7], particularly as 1.3 billion tonnes of food generated for human consumption is wasted each year [8].


What can you do to reduce your food footprint?

Although increasing the number of plant-based foods in your diet is excellent, veganism is not the answer. In fact, eating a more balanced diet and instead reducing dairy and beef intake seems to be the most effective solution. No-matter which meat you decide to consume in your diet, there will always be negative environmental impacts; it is about getting to know your food and understanding the different farming methods. Choose local ethical farmers who are transparent with their methods (this may require a little digging).


Here are some other important ways to reduce your food’s footprint:

  • Use the Water Footprint Calculator to work out how much water is used to produce your food.

  • Freeze, freeze and freeze! Freezing food makes it last much longer but be sure to check freezing instructions. Did you know you can freeze avocados and milk?

  • Reduce the number of processed foods you consume.

  • Turn yesterday’s leftovers into today’s lunch instead of putting them in the bin (try googling some recipes to get you going).

  • Help reduce your supermarket’s waste by purchasing bruised and reduced foods that would normally be thrown away that day.


Things to remember

Food prices are continuing to rise (with the global food import bill looking to hit a new record) [9], making it difficult for those of us on smaller incomes to eat well/sustainably. As always, it is important to ensure you do not take on the burden of the climate crisis alone. However, the steps above are relatively simple and can even save you money (but remember what I spoke about last time about the rebound effect), so they are worth giving a go.


Share with us your zero food waste recipes on Instagram, we would love to see what you can come up with!


References


[1] World Hunger: Key Facts and Statistics 2022 [Internet]. Action Against Hunger. 2022 [cited 7 July 2022]. Available from: https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics

[2] World Greenhouse Gas Emissions: 2016 [Internet]. World Resources Institute. 2020 [cited 7 July 2022]. Available from: https://www.wri.org/data/world-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2016

[3] Global Sustainable Development Report, 2015 edition | Latest Major Publications - United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs [Internet]. Un.org. 2015 [cited 7 July 2022]. Available from: https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/publications/global-sustainable-development-report-2015-edition.html

[4] Water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison [Internet]. Waterfootprint.org. 2022 [cited 5 July 2022]. Available from: https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/water-footprint-crop-and-animal-products/

[5] Chapagain, James. The water and carbon footprint of household food and drink waste in the UK [Internet]. Waterfootprint.org. 2011 [cited 7 July 2022]. Available from: https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Water-and-carbon-footprint-food-and-drink-waste-UK-2011_1.pdf

[6] Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture [Internet]. Our World in Data. 2019 [cited 7 July 2022]. Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/global-land-for-agriculture#note-2

[7] Food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions [Internet]. Our World in Data. 2020 [cited 7 July 2022]. Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/food-waste-emissions

[8] FAO - News Article: Food wastage: Key facts and figures [Internet]. Fao.org. [cited 7 July 2022]. Available from: https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/196402/icode/

[9] https://www.fao.org/newsroom/detail/new-un-food-outlook-report-world-s-most-vulnerable-are-paying-more-for-less-food/en