Food

Summary——————–Overview——————–Solutions

Food is an extremely polarizing topic due to its importance in our everyday lives and its massive impacts on the environment. In 2018, food systems released about 16 Gt of CO2e in the atmosphere [160 billion pandas] – equivalent to roughly 33% of our global GHG emissions the same year [note that many reports have more cautious estimates, like the IPCC’s 21-37% range].

Including the effects of land use conversion like deforestation, the farming stage [i.e. excluding food transport, supply chains, or waste disposal] accounted for 65% of food’s GHG emissions in 2018. Unfortunately, there’s more to it than just GHGs. Our food systems also caused 32% of terrestrial acidification and 78% of eutrophication in 2018, which can both destroy ecosystems and induce biodiversity loss.

Many factors can increase a food product’s footprint, such as cooking methods, transportation, and packaging – but it’s clear that the farming stage has the highest impacts of them all. So that’ll be the main focus of this section.

Personal diets aside, it’s important to understand that our food systems are causing environmental crises in some of the most biodiverse parts of the world. Simply put, we need the current food system to change to become more eco-friendly. Not only to reduce our present impacts, but also to ensure a secure food access to an increasing – and increasingly demanding population.

Land and Population

In 2019, around 51 million km2 of land were used for agriculture [includes pastures for animals and fields for crops]. That represents around 50% of the Earth’s habitable land area. Unfortunately, it won’t stop there if we don’t change our food systems – since we’ll soon need more food for our growing population. In fact, worldwide food production is expected to grow by roughly 48% from 2013-2050.

On top of population growth, many densely populated countries are still developing, and their populations are getting richer. Many who were constrained to eat smaller rations of local products can now eat larger meals like developed countries – with ingredients imported from all over the world. For example, China’s middle class – which has grown from roughly 80 million in 2002 to 700 million in 2020 – has increased the country’s average meat intake significantly in the past 60 years [the graph below also shows the strong relationship between income and meat consumption]. Same goes for Brazil, another densely populated nation.

To recap, food demand is increasing because of population growth, but also since the demand per capita is increasing in densely populated areas.

Now to ensure food security, we need to produce more food. To produce more food, we need more crops. And for that, we need more arable land [we’ll see in a later section that changing our agricultural practices can also lead to more food production].

The ever-increasing demand for arable land is a big problem since we don’t really discover new land every day. Our current solution seems to be burning/cutting down forests and other green ecosystems to allow crops to grow instead – which is proving very costly for the environment. We simply can’t afford to damage our vegetation – as it absorbs roughly a quarter of our CO2 emissions every year. That helps mitigate climate change, while land use conversion [e.g. deforestation] accelerates it. Vegetation also holds an incredible amount of biodiversity, so cutting down these forests results in biodiversity loss.

It’s not all about land either. Aquatic ecosystems are being severely polluted because of our unsustainable food practices [e.g. chemical runoff causing eutrophication]. Fishing and aquaculture farms are threatening many marine ecosystems as well, mainly through careless fishing techniques and over-fishing [fun fact: some predatory farmed fish species can require loads of wild fishing to feed them].

Instead of resorting to land use conversion, pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modifying our crops to increase food production temporarily, let’s see how easy it is to improve our food systems from the consumer side of things.

Food Emissions and Land Use

No matter our diet, it’s important to understand how much our food pollutes before we eat it. The following graph shows the extent to which different products release GHG emissions during their life-cycle. Quickly zooming in on the next graph and finding the ingredients we eat the most can help us acknowledge how our everyday meals impact the environment.

Clearly, animal products are the highest-impact foods. However, there are a few other products that emit loads of emissions as well – like coffee, chocolate, and oils.

Whether we eat meat or not, we all consume some of the foods shown in the graph. And we’re not the only ones. Cattle [i.e. cows and bulls] don’t only eat grass like they do in cartoons, just like pigs don’t eat mud.

While ruminants [e.g. cattle, sheep, goats, etc…] do consume roughly 2.7 billion tonnes of grass per year and 65% of this grass grows on unfarmable lands – that still leaves 35% of grazed land where lower impact foods could be grown instead. And more importantly, neither of those percentages account for the massive proportion of our crops that are grown in other parts of the world to end up as livestock [i.e. all farm animals] feed. It’s estimated that around a third of all crops are grown to feed livestock, using 38% of our arable and permanent croplands worldwide.

Regardless of whether livestock eat grass or feed, it’s simply undeniable that they take up a lot of room. And with the significant increase in animal product consumption in recent decades, that has only led to agricultural expansion.

Agricultural Expansion

We’ve stated earlier that farmlands [i.e. land for crop and livestock farming] cover around 50% of the Earth’s habitable surface. Since the Earth is fully booked, increasing that percentage ever so slightly has usually led to deforestation and land use conversion of other green ecosystems. In fact, it’s estimated that agriculture was responsible for around 73% of tropical deforestation worldwide from 2000-2010 [with tropical deforestation accounting for roughly 95% of total deforestation]. That’s a pretty big problem considering vegetation sequestrates loads of carbon in biomass and soils – while land use conversion releases that carbon back into the atmosphere. This helps explain why land use conversion is one of agriculture’s highest GHG-emitting activities.

On the surface, it might seem like croplands are responsible for most of the deforestation occurring within the food industry, instead of livestock. If we dig deeper though, we find that animal products have the largest impacts once again. That’s because roughly 67% of deforestation for agriculture aims to grow livestock feed. Deforestation for agriculture is the process of clearing trees to use the land for agriculture. This type of land use conversion has significant impacts on the environment, such as biodiversity loss and releasing the carbon stored in the soil or biomass.

The industry is well aware of the lack of space. We simply don’t have room to grow food for so many animals.

Aside from deforestation, the industry’s current solution seems to be reducing each animal’s living space so that they’re only able to move a few inches in a certain direction. Not only is this an inhumane solution, it’s also unsustainable. Instead of dealing with the consequences of the problem, we should try and modify the root cause – only then will we come up with food systems that we can sustain for the foreseeable future.

Food’s Inefficiencies and the Food Chain

CyclopediApp is devoted to pointing out inefficiencies in our current energy and resource consumption systems. Eating meat is one of those inefficiencies. Per unit weight or protein content, it’s easy to see that livestock consume more food than they give back. While that would be acceptable if they were only eating inedible food scraps [i.e. feed requires no additional land or resources], we know that’s not the case.

These inefficiencies make sense because that’s how the food chain works. When we eat food, our bodies consume the calories, protein, and other nutrients needed to make sure we remain alive and [ideally] healthy. However, unless we’re building muscle, those ‘food elements’ aren’t really stored anywhere. So if anyone tried to eat us, they wouldn’t get all the food elements we got when we ate our food. In other words, we tax a certain amount of energy and nutrients from our food that can’t be retrieved if we ever get eaten. This is particularly true once we’ve stopped building muscle – although we still impose taxes on food elements when growing and building muscle [taxes are just a little lower].

The same is true for the animals/plants we eat. When eating a food, we only consume a part of the food elements that this food has received from its food [and so on]. So if we ate a cow for example, then we’d only be getting a small part of the food elements that it got from grass or feed. In other words, cows are imposing a pretty hefty tax on us. To avoid this tax [i.e. to avoid inefficiencies in our food systems], we’d have to get lower on the food chain. This is the one of the main reasons why eating our ‘food’s food’ can help us reduce our impacts on the environment.

Other Important Sources of Emissions of High-Impact Foods

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than just the food chain. There are additional emission sources for different animals and farming practices – varying from enteric fermentation [with ruminant digestion], to aquaculture, and even manure. On top of just being fed, livestock have many other needs – including frequent antibiotic and growth promoting supplements [i.e. medicine and steroids]. The graph below shows that cattle GHG emissions are primarily released by enteric fermentation [in low emission farms], which indicates that the most efficient way to reduce cattle emissions is to reduce their population sizes.

With 720-811 million humans having suffered from hunger in 2020, it’s tough to see livestock get a priority on food and medicine.

Reducing Food’s Impacts

There are plenty of policies and subsidies that governments can implement or remove to increase food security sustainably. As always, these types of large-scale solutions are the most effective ones. However, it’s important for individuals to understand that unsustainable diets will have to change if we plan on reducing our impacts on the environment – no matter how successful the large-scale solutions are.

Transitioning toward animal-free diets could help the food industry reduce its land use by several million km2 by 2050, which would help us restore green ecosystems worldwide. Additionally, phasing out animal products could help us lower the food system’s GHG emissions by up to 8.0 Gt of CO2e per year by 2050.

Evidently, heavier meat eaters can make the greatest changes in their diets – so developed countries have the highest potential for GHG emissions reduction. For reference, meat consumption per capita in the US is over 3 times the global average.

However, it’s important to remain realistic. While there’s certainly an urgency to adopt more sustainable diets, not everyone can change their habits overnight – which is okay. We just can’t take too long, since we need to start reducing our impacts now, not in a few years.

Apart from self-banning categories of foods, it’s quite hard for consumers to do more. At that point, we’d need more information when selecting which foods to buy at the grocery store. For that to happen, governments and companies will have to collaborate to make sure that impacts for all food products are fairly evaluated and properly communicated to consumers. A simple example would be a little sticker on food products that indicates the amount of GHG emissions released during the entire production process. Alone, these types of numbers won’t help much – but official standards and certifications have the potential to help consumers compare similar products and guide more sustainable purchases [e.g. ‘fair-trade’ certification].

It’s important to note that it’s much harder for producers to adopt more sustainable practices than it is for consumers to refine their diet. Since the world’s 570+ million farms employ different methods, are located in different environments, and have different sizes – there aren’t many solutions that can help increase sustainability across the board. In other words, what reduces impacts for a small farmer in Ukraine may do the opposite for large farming corporations in Brazil. Nonetheless, improving farming practices for the largest farming companies can drastically reduce the food sector’s emissions.

Wastage

Wastage, which comprises both food waste and food loss – has devastating impacts on the environment. Here are a few concerning factoids, as of 2013:

  • 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food are wasted or lost every year [13 billion pandas].
  • A third of all food produced for humans results in food wastage.
  • 250 km3 of freshwater are used to produce food that is either lost or wasted each year. For 8 billion people, that’s equivalent to over 85 liters of water per person per day [note that WHO states we can live with 50-100 L/day/person].
  • 28% of the Earth’s farmlands were used to produce food that is either lost or wasted.
  • $750 billion USD is lost per year due to food wastage, which is roughly the same amount as the GDP of Switzerland.

It’s extremely disappointing to see so many resources exploited to grow crops, only to see it all go to waste at some point during the production process, or later by consumers. Keep in mind the values listed were released in 2013, so they have surely changed a bit since. More recently, a 2021 UN report estimated that 931 million tonnes – or 17% – of all food available at consumer levels is wasted every year, mostly by individuals. That’s 9.31 billion pandas-worth of food per year, which is over 1 panda per human every year.

This wastage isn’t really surprising given that our food systems operate with the same careless methods that other industries are governed by [e.g. fast fashion]. Essentially, supermarkets would rather waste than be out of stock for a few days, so they buy too much – and consumers do the same. Luckily, even if we don’t change our over-consumerism methods soon, food wastage can still be minimized by donating food on the brink of spoilage to those in need [as some governments have enforced].

Local products are far less likely to spoil if purchased and require less transportation than imported foods. As such, wastage can be avoided with better food chain systems that avoid long transportation routes for highly perishable items [e.g. produce, meat].

The graph below shows one way to deal with food wastage.

Food Security

While we could think that reducing food wastage means reducing food production and thus food security – that’s not the case. Many regions of the world already suffer from food insecurity and hunger, although global wastage rates are high – so we could simply reduce food wastage by sharing food with the hungry. This would effectively increase global food security, while maintaining current global production if need be.

Nonetheless, we should note that completely eliminating global food wastage is neither a realistic nor desirable goal, since it would weaken global food security considerably.

We should also note that increasing meat consumption in impoverished areas can have positive effects on local food security – which could be worth the high-impacts [e.g. with cattle fed from grass on local unfarmable lands]. However, it’s important to note that this is not the case in developed countries where high meat consumption is clearly unsustainable and continues to strain the world’s remaining natural resources.

Conclusion

Governments and companies have a lot of work to do to improve food systems swiftly at the largest scales and should be focused on better policies/farming practices – instead of placing the blame on consumers. However, it has to be clear that we can’t go on with our unsustainable diets. There’s simply no way we can keep them up for long – without mentioning the damage they incur to the environment.

CyclopediApp isn’t here to tell you what to do or eat. That being said, if you’re willing to reduce your personal impacts on the environment and/or push for large scale change, then there are plenty of ‘food solutions’ waiting for you here.