By simply changing what we eat to focus our diets more on whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and meat and dairy produced in a sustainable way, we could significantly reduce the environmental impact.
Changing what we eat
While some people still go hungry, most of us eat more food than ever – and we definitely eat more meat.
Since the 1960s, the amount of food produced globally has exploded. Meat and vegetable oil production has doubled since 1961, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the supply of food calories per capita has grown by about one-third.
Changes in eating habits have resulted in about 2 billion adults being overweight or obese, the Intergovernmental Panel says, while an estimated 821 million are still undernourished.
The problem with meat and dairy products, particularly cattle ranching, is that they produce more carbon emissions and require more land than vegetable sources of protein. By simply changing what we eat to focus our diets more on whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and meat and dairy produced in a sustainable way, we could significantly reduce the environmental impact. By 2050, dietary changes alone could return several million square kilometres of land to nature and radically reduce carbon emissions.
Beef’s big carbon footprint
Meat, fish and seafood, eggs and dairy use about 83% of the world’s available farmland and account for 56-58% of agriculture’s emissions (carbon, methane and others), but we only get 37% of our protein and 18% of our total calories from those foods, according to a study published in Science Magazine. Emissions from animal products are typically higher because it requires twice as much vegetable protein to feed an animal as the protein gained from the animal’s meat.
That’s not the only problem. Carbon is released when forests are destroyed. In Brazil the Amazon rainforest has often been burned or chopped down to make room for cattle ranching and crops used to feed livestock. In addition, livestock feed is usually produced in one place (soybean crops in the Amazon) and then transported to ranches in other areas (European cattle). Those factors increase meat’s overall carbon footprint.
The amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated by beef production[i] per 100 grams of protein are 12 times greater than those created by dairy farming, and the land used is 50 times greater, the study found. Dairy cows, in turn, produce 36 times more carbon emissions and use six times more land than peas, a good source of vegetable protein.
We could just all become vegans. Excluding animal products from our diet could reduce the amount of land used in agriculture by about 76% and lower carbon emissions by 49%, according to the study. Rewilding land no longer needed for food production could remove about 8 billion metric tonnes of carbon emissions from the atmosphere each year over the next 100 years.
While veganism may be unpalatable for many people, simply cutting the amount of animal products we eat can make an impact on carbon emissions. By halving the amount of animal products consumed globally, the study found that emissions could be cut by about 10 billion metric tonnes, or about 71% of the total reduction achievable by eliminating meat, while land use could be reduced by 67% of the total if we all went without meat.
We could also track where our food comes from to support low-impact producers. The study found that a few high-impact producers were responsible for the majority of emissions. For beef, the highest-impact 25% of producers accounted for 56% of greenhouse gas emissions and 61% of land use. Avoiding beef from those producers could already go a long way towards reducing the environmental impact.
Cutting food waste
The numbers are stunning. About 25-30% of the food produced globally is wasted, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Wasted food accounted for 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases) from 2010-2016.
Ending food waste would go a long way towards feeding 11 billion people by 2100. To do so, every step of food production needs to be improved, from harvesting techniques, to on-site storage at the farm, to infrastructure, to transport, packaging, retailing and education.
In recent years, several European governments have turned their attention to the problem. France throws away an estimated 10 million tonnes, or 10 billion kilos, of food each year. So France passed a law in 2016 that requires supermarkets of over 400 m² to stop throwing out or destroying unsold but still consumable produce. Instead they have to give it to foodbanks or other charities. A number of countries have followed France’s lead in passing similar laws, including Italy, Finland, the Czech Republic and Peru. In 2018, France went a step further and passed a law requiring the agrifood and industrial catering industry to do the same.
The average German throws away 55 kilograms of food a year. While Germany doesn’t yet have any laws dealing directly with food waste, the government has started a push to cut food waste by half by 2030 through an initiative involving consumers, agrifood companies, non-profit organisations, politicians and scientists.