How often do you consider where the food in your shopping trolley comes from? How it began life? Where and by whom it was nurtured and the journey it then took to end up in a supermarket, corner shop or market place and from there into your belly? This is what I challenge you to try and do more of, to get curious about your food and treat every item you buy with the care and thoughtfulness you’d give to… oh I don’t know, choosing somewhere to live? I have a feeling that if we all took the time to invite more thought into what we buy and how much, our diets would naturally become more ‘sustainable’ and world-friendly.
But what is a sustainable diet? Sustainable diets have been defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO):
“Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources.” (FAO, 2010)
Sounds pretty lovely right? However, which foods and dietary patterns actually constitute a sustainable diet has been under investigation for a very long time; this area remains highly complicated and, I don’t believe, entirely fully understood. Due to the broad scope of areas covered under the umbrella term of sustainability there are often controversial and fairly strong viewpoints thrown about. What I’ve tried to do is find a sense of balance towards why and how we can try to have a more sustainable diet.
The impact modern-day agriculture has on the environment is no secret. Meat and dairy production is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; cattle being one of the worst offenders. For example, methane is one of the gases that cows produce daily and is 4 times more potent as a GHG than carbon dioxide is – and we’ve all heard of how significant carbon footprints are for our planet right? Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being associated with modern-day problems such as acidification of the oceans leading to bleaching of coral reef.
And it’s not just emissions, natural resource use, such as land and water, is much higher with intensive livestock farming. Beef production for example is hugely inefficient with just 1% of gross calories consumed by cows being available for human consumption.
- 18% of GHG emissions is directly attributable to livestock production.
- 1kg beef requires around 43,000L water whereas to produce 1kg grain only around 1000L is required.
- By swapping beef to Quorn™ mince (mycoprotein produced from fermentation by a fungus that comes from the soil) every week for a year the reduction in carbon emissions could save the equivalent of 20,000 boiling kettles (Quorn website).
- Agriculture is responsible for 70% of human water usage.
- 80% of agricultural land is used for livestock.
- To feed future populations on our current diet we would need 120% more water than we currently have.
With the global population haven risen exponentially and projected to carry on increasing, as well as a greater proportion of the global population demanding diets similar to a typical Western diet – that contains a higher proportion of animal products – we simply cannot continue to consume meat at the rate we currently do. In developing countries demand for meat is rising whereas consumption of pulses has been on a steady decline, with the world average being around 7kg/person/year. Compare that with meat consumption where the estimated global average is around 41kg/person/year.
Ever heard of the Eatwell Guide? Well if you haven’t I’ve popped it in below as it is the UK’s evidence-based recommendations for what a healthy balanced diet should look like for those of us healthy people lucky enough to live here. What it essentially shows is that the vast majority of our diet (overall – and not at each eating occasion or even daily as many mistakenly believe) should be based upon starchy (wholegrain) carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables with some intake of dairy (or alternatives), lean proteins and a small amount of mono- and polyunsaturated oils and spreads.
Makes sense right? The reason I’m mentioning it here is that when the Eatwell Guide was revised in 2016 (from the previous ‘Eatwell Plate’) focus was shifted to also emphasise the importance of consuming less animal products. In fact, the eagle eyed among you might have noticed that in the protein slice plant-based proteins, beans and pulses (peas, beans and lentils) are named above animal proteins – this is no accident. Around 75% of the Eatwell Guide is made up of plant-based foods, showing how much of our overall diet should be composed of these foods for a sustainable and healthy balance.
However, I appreciate that not all agricultural land is suitable for arable use and therefore to be as productive as possible it may be necessary, and perfectly plausible, to graze animals on these lands. A potential way to optimise efficiency would be to survey land currently in use for agriculture and determine the most appropriate and sustainable use for it; determining production so that local communities could be supported with supply of grains, pulses and legumes, small amounts of dairy and meat and then excess distributed further afield. Thereby further reducing huge costs and detriment to the environment caused by importing and transporting produce long distances by road, rail or plane.
What would be wonderful if as well as thinking about meat, dairy and eggs from an environmental perspective we could consider welfare. So that when choosing animal-products making sure to go for those that have been produced using practices that respects animals as sentient beings and attempt to make the end of their life as stress and pain-free as possible. Keep your eyes out for welfare marks like the ones below when shopping.
High welfare products tend to be slightly higher in price and so to keep the cost of our diet the same we could eat less of these products and fill in the gap with (oftentimes much cheaper!) locally produced, when possible, plant-based foods. This results in a win-win for our planet, those involved in agriculture, the animals that have ended up destined to be used in the agriculture industry and for our own health and moral well-being.
“The Gods created certain kinds of beings to replenish our bodies; they are the trees and the plants and the seeds.” – Plato.
For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:
FAO (2010). Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity – http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3004e/i3004e.pdf
FAO. World agriculture: towards 2015/2030 – http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4252e/y4252e07.htm
FAO (2016). Trends in worldwide production, consumption and trade of pulses – http://www.fao.org/pulses-2016/news/news-detail/en/c/381491/
Public Health England (2016). The Eatwell Guide, explained – https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/551502/Eatwell_Guide_booklet.pdf
British Nutrition Foundation. Health, sustainable diets – https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/sustainability.html