The Way You Eat Can Shape The World
by Elisa Pineda
Earth Day is celebrated on the 22 of April and marks the anniversary of the birth of a new modern environmental movement that began in 1970. This movement has led to awareness of the impact and the footprint that our choices leave behind. To tackle this, The United Nations set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets as part of the agenda for 2013. These goals aim to bring consensus amongst governments.
Traditional diets, which were once characterized by low meat, refined sugar and fat content, have been replaced by ultra-processed and over-packaged foods. The food that you eat today contributes to 1/4 of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. These gas emissions have a tremendous environmental impact that lead to climate change. Among the food production factors that influence climate change are: 1) the great amount of water that is required for cattle and agriculture, 2) the space used affects soil nourishment, and 3) the greenhouse-gas emissions produced.
The leading contributor to your water footprint is not your lawn or the time of your showers but your diet.
There are some foods, like meat production, that require more water than others. Just to bring one burger to your plate (made with about 66 g of meat) 899L of water are needed. Likewise, for 0.5 kg of pork to be processed and ready for you to eat requires 2,182L of water. On the other hand, 0.5 kg of potatoes requires 450L of water and similarly, 1 apple requires 70 L of water.
Agriculture today relies on the clearing of forests and grasslands for cultivation which affects the diversity and growth of living species. The more space is used for the growth of single crops the more vulnerable we become against natural disasters, such as floods. This is due to elimination of native plants and wildlife which serve as natural barriers of protection that protect land from erosion. What is more, the unregulated use of pesticides affects the principal producers of food worldwide: bees. Without them plant pollination and food growth would be greatly reduced and affected.
Food production, which involves food storage, packing and even the making of fertilizers, causes 1/3 of greenhouse-gas emissions generated by humans. Scientists found that agriculture production can liberate up to 12,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in a year.
Some initiatives have started to take place such as ‘Meatless Mondays’ and ‘Less meat Tuesdays’. The latter was recently implemented with great success at the headquarters of the World Health Organization. More initiatives need to be implemented in our work and community environments to avoid the most negative scenarios of climate change and food deprivation. There are some actions that you as an individual can take that can actually make a huge difference. You can begin with two actions: 1) eating a more sustainable diet and 2) eating local.
Eating More Sustainably
A study which compared different types of diets was undertaken to see if an environmental impact could be reduced by dietary intake alone. The study found that your dietary choices today can influence the environment. The compared diets were the Mediterranean, pescetarian, vegetarian and a ‘processed’ diet. The study did not try to compare the alternative diets with each other and it does not imply that other diets might not show even higher health benefits.
The processed diet represents what the average human consumes today in the developed world. It is typically high in packaging and its footprint is heavy. It is also rich in ’empty’ calories (low nutrient and high calorie food), because of the elevated added sugar and alcohol intake. This type of diet is also high in meat and other animal products. The study showed that transitioning from more traditional and healthier diets to highly processed diets led to a higher risk of type II diabetes and coronary heart disease. This diet poses a bigger danger for the environment because of its contribution to agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions and land clearing. In the study this processed diet was used as a reference diet and compared to the following three options to see if the health and environmental impact would change.
- Mediterranean Diet
A Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, fruit and seafood and olive oil making it a healthy alternative rich in antioxidants.
- Pescetarian Diet
A pescetarian diet is based on fish and seafood and avoids meat intake. This type of diet can be a good source of quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Vegetarian Diet
A vegetarian diet includes dairy products and eggs but almost no meat or fish. This diet is richer in fruits, vegetables and pulses which could both reduce the environmental effects and offer substantial health benefits.
What The Study Concluded
Having a Mediterranean, pescetarian or vegetarian diet reduces your risk of non-communicable diseases, such as type II diabetes and cancer, and it shows to be a lower threat to the environment. Therefore, changing your typical processed diet to one lower in meat and richer in fruits, vegetables and pulses could reduce the CO2 production by 1.2–2.3 gigatonnes per year (30–60% of the projected 2050 emissions from agriculture under the processed diet).
If you’re vegetarian and you think you’re in the clear, read on! Reducing your meat intake will indeed help save the Earth, but eating more locally is also essential. With food available from all over the world, from every season, all year round, the damage our planet receives escalates. Transportation is required to get blueberries in December onto the grocery shelves, and this adds about 11% of the greenhouse emissions involved in food production. So eating healthy and taking care of the environment don’t always go together, especially if your healthy food is coming from the other side of the world.
Dietary changes are a global challenge but you can be part of the solution by becoming aware of where your food comes from and making a few dietary changes. These dietary adjustments can help put a stop to the environmental burden by reducing the environmental footprint you leave behind and they can also improve your health by reducing your risk of disease.
To learn more about how you can make changes in your diet to save the Earth read 10 Surprisingly Simple Guidelines to Eat Healthy and Save the Earth.