Navigating Sustainable Eating: Practical Tips for a Greener Lifestyle By Hattie Webb

Food, glorious food – it sustains us, drives a multi-billion-dollar industry, and unfortunately, it also contributes to devastating impacts on our planet. The need to carefully consider the impact of our diets has become increasingly important in recent years. This article will delve into the current issues plaguing the food industry and explore potential solutions for a more sustainable future.

The Environmental Impact of the Food Industry

When it comes to the environmental impacts of our food choices, the numbers are staggering.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the environmental impacts:

  • The global food system accounts for approximately one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The food system is responsible for 70% of the world’s freshwater use.
  • The food system contributes to 78% of freshwater pollution.
  • Human use of land for agriculture has affected about three-quarters of ice-free land areas.
  • Deforestation and changes in land use have led to significant biodiversity loss.

Carbon Emissions and Food Production

In terms of carbon, where do the emissions from our food come from? The largest meta-analysis of global food systems to date was published in Science in 2018, and examined data from more than 38,000 commercial farms in 119 countries. The visualisation below shows GHG emissions from 29 food products – from beef at the top to nuts at the bottom. The visualisation also shows from which stage in the supply chain the emissions originate.

For most foods, most GHG emissions come from land use change (in green) and from processes at the farm stage (brown). Overall, CO2 emissions from most plant-based products are as much as 10-50 times lower than most animal-based products.

Research shows that giving up meat could reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by 34 per cent, and going vegetarian could reduce your water footprint by 55 per cent.  And although meat (particularly beef) are found at the top of the graph, the impact of the dairy industry shouldn’t be forgotten – the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says dairy production is responsible for 1.7 billion tonnes of global CO2 emissions a year, nearly double that produced by aviation (3.4 per cent and 1.9 per cent respectively).

So, where carbon emissions are concerned, the data is pretty clear that eating more plant-based foods rather than animal-based (meat and dairy) could be a good step in eating more sustainably. We recommend you calculate your own carbon footprint, and see what proportion comes from your diet.

The Human Impact of Food Production

When it comes to sustainability, it is essential to consider more than just greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Numerous food production processes worldwide have significant human impacts. One prominent example is the chocolate industry, which is closely associated with human rights issues and modern slavery.

In Ghana and Ivory Coast, the largest cocoa producers globally, an estimated 1.56 million children are involved in cocoa production. Similarly, the coffee industry presents a distressing narrative. Coffee farmers endure gruelling 10-hour workdays in extreme heat and often receive a meagre 1%-3% of the retail price.

Regrettably, even our beloved brunch staple, avocados, is not exempt from such concerns. In western Mexico, growers have fallen victim to land seizures by drug lords who reportedly earn £150 million annually from the sale of so-called “blood avocados” to British traders.

Addressing these issues requires proactive measures. While some individuals, like Alan Titchmarsh, have chosen to completely abstain from foods such as avocados, it may prove more challenging when it comes to chocolate and coffee. However, there are steps we can take to make a difference. When selecting chocolate, it is advisable to opt for smaller, more transparent brands whenever possible. Tony’s Chocaloney is one such ethical brand, although it is important to note that achieving 100% ethical standards or complete eradication of modern slavery within the chocolate industry is challenging due to its nature.

In the case of coffee, keep an eye out for the Rainforest Alliance certification when choosing your next brand. This certification works with 400,000 certified coffee producers worldwide, connecting them with responsible markets and providing training in climate-smart and regenerative growing practices that not only enhance yields and incomes but also promote sustainability.

Key Takeaways

To summarise, the food industry is a complex landscape, making it challenging to navigate the path towards sustainable eating. However, a valuable guiding principle is to prioritize plant-based choices whenever feasible. It’s important to note that the interpretation of “plant-based” can vary among individuals. Some adopt practices like “meatless Mondays,” while others follow a vegetarian diet during the week and consume meat on weekends.

Personally, I found success in being vegan for six years, not only saving a substantial amount of money (thanks to the affordability of lentil curry!) but also experiencing improved overall health. However, I now embrace a more flexible approach, primarily adhering to a plant-based diet while occasionally incorporating dairy and fish. This balanced approach has proven to be sustainable for me, and I encourage you to find your own healthy equilibrium.

On an organisational level, I also recommend carefully considering the food choices you make when ordering and serving meals to your staff or guests. Opting for sustainable food options not only enhances your reputation but also has the potential to reduce your Scope 3 carbon emissions. By selecting your food suppliers wisely, you can contribute to a more sustainable future while aligning your organisation with environmentally conscious practices.

Interested in a free discovery call about embracing sustainability? Get in touch with Hattie today.

For more information

Hattie Webb
Consultant
hattie.webb@actionsustainability.com

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