The environmental issues and the growing world population are the two main challenges that modern agriculture is now facing and will still have to confront in the future. The high productivity due to the worldwide food demand has imposed alarming environmental costs. According to Environmental reports, agriculture, deforestation and land use accounts for 20 percent of all Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Our whole agricultural system from the macro level of food production to the micro level of the supply chain and consumers’ plates, needs to be rethought out.

The macro level of the food production chain has a huge and negative impact on biodiversity. Land clearing, deforestation, monocultures and the use of high amount of water, fertilizer and pesticides have led to irreversible environmental costs. Modern agriculture is creating this infinite interconnected circle of food production and environment impacting each other.

The estimations of a rise between 60% and 100% of the global food demands by mid-century is even more worrying. A recent study has found that looking not only at the emissions from agricultural production but directly in the customers’ plates could help mitigate the effect agriculture has on climate change. Mitigation of the food system would mean reducing the gap between agricultural production, products and producers and food consumption, products and consumers. The length of the food chain is growing and is translated by a disconnection between production and consumption zones and an extended delay between agricultural harvest and food consumption. Modifying our modern agricultural system and achieving food security1 are therefore the most decisive and urgent challenges of our time. For this reason, it is crucial to better understand food consumption behaviours, their various motives and their environmental costs and try to look at different solutions that can be used at the individual scale.

1food security is achieved at the individual, household, regional and global levels when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary need and food preferences for an active and healthy life. (FCRN Food source).

A shift in food choices: towards a “westernization” of our plates

Our food consumption depends on a large set of factors connected to food availability, accessibility and choice. Since the Second World War and due to an average better quality of life in developed and emerging countries such as the United States, China, Brazil and India, our meals expectations have changed. We now eat richer and bigger meals. This rise of calorie intake is linked to an increase in sugar, fats and animal products and a simultaneous decline in cereals, potatoes and pulses. Food products are also becoming more processed and ready-to-eat. To put it simply, we are assisting a ‘westernization’ of our diets or a convergence of the world eating patterns.

The United Nations (UN) estimates that an additional 2 billion people will live on the planet by mid-century. Today’s global population is already getting wealthier in countries such as India or China and will force the agriculture system to adapt and innovate in order to meet the 28 percent food supply increase that 2 billion people require and reduce its impact on the environment. In addition to the problem, it is predicted that 40 percent of the world’s population will transition to a diet heavier in meat, eggs and dairy by 2050. Feeding animals crops use a lot of calorie energy, including emissions from fertilizer or transportation. Ruminants like cows often require more feed produce, produce more waste and need higher level of energy input. Getting calories from animals dramatically impacts the environment much more than having a plant-based diet.

The shift towards more animal product in our diet has modified the way we use food crops and land. In order to meet the high demand, more areas have been cleared to raise cattle for the meat industry.

Only 59 percent of the worlds calorie production is used for food that either directly comes from crops or from animals that have eaten those crops. The rest of the world’s calories goes toward animal feed or industrial uses like bioenergy2 (maize is used in the US for ethanol production or sugarcane is the biofuel crop in Brazil).

As a consequence, this evolution towards transformed or processed food generates an increasing ‘distance’ between consumers and agricultural products. The challenge would be, thus, to change the diets of the world’s growing middle class which has a huge impact on our health and on the environment.

2 Bioenergy refers to electricity and gas that is generated from organic matter, known as biomass. This can be anything from plants and timber to agricultural and food waste – and even sewage (GoodEnergy, ‘What is Bioenergy?’).

How To Help?

It is important to have in mind that the kind of animal products we choose to include in our diet and how much, have a great impact on GHG emissions. You do not need to become vegan tomorrow. A vegan diet is not a possibility for everyone for diverse reasons, be it the unavailability of plant-based proteins or its price. For those who can change their diet, small changes like reducing the amount of animal products could be considered as an encouraging start.

The New York Times wrote an article about food and Climate Change and how to shop and cook to reduce our impact on the environment. It answers a range of questions from ‘which food has the biggest impact?’ to ‘should humans stop eating meat altogether?’. Each section is about a specific food (poultry, seafood, dairy, etc).

Overall, according to the study ‘Climate Benefits of Changing Diet’, a healthier diet would allow world crop areas to be reduced by 10%, with a decrease in mitigation costs of carbon dioxide emissions by 50%. The lands available would be used for other purposes such as energy crops or nature reserves.

In case you need some inspiration for vegan meals, we listed below several motivating blogs and YouTube Channels

Rainbow Plant Life

Nisha is a New Yorker food blogger with colourful and vibrant recipes. Some of them are inspired by her Indian roots.

The Easy Vegan

Like it is said in the name, Jules makes quite easy recipes. He also has a Youtube channel where he posts recipes that he explains with a contagious humour.

Rachel Ama

She proposes delicious and rich recipes, often inspired by Caribbean cuisine.

Food Waste

As we have observed earlier, the current agricultural system is not sustainable either to ensure a healthy planet or  global food security and health. The UN Food Agricultural Organisation estimates that globally, 1/3 of food produced goes to waste. In the US, 40 percent of their food supply goes to waste every year, it is similar to buying five bags from the grocery store and leaving two of them in the parking lot every time you shop.

Food waste is much more difficult to solve than food losses. Food that is lost during the harvest period can be reduced thanks to investment and budget, for instance developing infrastructure for storage and transport or efficient disease control.

Food waste on the other hand is more difficult to fix. At the distribution and consumption levels, profound changes are required on the individual and collective aspects in order to change the food industry and public behaviours. Food waste has been found to be responsible for 8 percent of the annual global emissions. The 8 percent includes the energy needed to ship, process and produce the food that ends up in the trash as well as potent methane fume that food emits as it decomposes in landfills.

The main issue of food waste is coming from how the consumer purchases and behaves when shopping. Better looking products will always sell over imperfect ones. The food supplier chains understand that one of the best ways to sell food is to give the illusion of abundance because people shop visually. In order to appear abundant, grocery stores often overbuy food to trick people into purchasing items. That excess leads to more waste. Overbuying can also be related to the ‘buy one get one free’ promotions or purchasing in bulk.

The other issue comes from a lack of clarity when it comes to dealing with expiration dates and spoiled goods. As a consequence, households throw out perfectly edible food well before it expires. In the United Kingdom, 2 million tons of food goes to waste due to a misinterpretation of the labels. To prevent edible food going to waste, the country attempted to replace the label ‘sell by’ and replaced it by ‘best before’; suggesting that food can safely be eaten after the date.

How To Help?

At the individual level, you can create a weekly meal plan to buy just what you need. The Feed Feed website proposes weekly meal plans depending on your type of diet. You can also use website like Eat by Date to truly understand whether your food has expired and then composting it instead of throwing it in the trash.

You can even get involved with groups like Food Not Bombs which have local branches all over the world that recovers food from local restaurants and stores and give it to those in need.

On the food supplier level, solutions like eliminating buy-one-get-one promotions, donating food that’s not fit for sale or using boxes and props to maintain the illusion of abundance. ReFED Is a multi-stakeholder non-profit committed to reduce U.S. food waste. It proposes 27 of the best opportunities or a ‘first-of-its-kind economic analysis’ to help stakeholders across the food supply chain to meet the national 50% reduction goal by 2030. It goes from ‘consumer education campaigns’ to ‘standardized date regulation’ and ‘trayless dining’. On the policy level, it means standardizing food labels to accurately reflect the science behind foodborne illnesses; educating consumers and expanding compost systems. Addressing food waste problem means tackling both climate change and hunger in the process

Max La Manna

is a zero-waste chef, author and presenter and worth to be followed on social media. He tries to inspire people through recipes to waste less food and ‘encourages awareness around the food we put on our plate, where it comes from and what happens when we waste it’.

Oddbox

is an online platform that fights food waste by proposing weekly vegetables and fruits boxes that can be delivered to your home. The website is working with growers and farmers and rescue fresh and seasonal fruits which are destined to trash because of their non-conventional shape size or because of a surplus of production.

Too Good To Go

is an App that connects establishments with daily food surpluses with people willing to save them in exchange for reduced prices. With over 9.5 million users and 17,000 associated establishments, this app has helped saved 10,092,382 food packs.

Food Packaging

From our grocery stores, markets, fast-food restaurants, online delivery orders to even the farmers’ market, almost all the food we buy is packaged and wrapped. The food packaging system contributes to make food safer, more reliable, stable on the shelves and hygienic. Unfortunately, most of those food packaging are not recyclable and often end up in waterways and landfills.

The United Nations has sounded the alarm and declared the plastic pollution in the ocean as a ‘planetary crisis’. Plastic bags for example are such a presence in our everyday lives that it is easy to ignore the damage they do to the environment. Plastic bags exploded in popularity after the 1960s for the reason it was marketed as a single-use product. The United States throw away 100 billion bags annually but only a fraction of those are recycled. The plastic bags end up in the ocean and can take up to 500 years to degrade. In the process, they slowly break down with the sun, water and microbial erosion and become smaller bits called microplastic which is disastrous for marine life.

Food packaging are made from a diversity of synthetic materials like glass, ceramic, metal or cardboard. All the plastic floating around the oceans is therefore incredibly harmful to animals. We have all came across pictures of birds found with stomachs full of plastics, turtles with straws stuck in their noses or animals with plastic bags and six-pack rings wrapped around their bodies. Ocean Conservancy claimed that “Plastic has been found in 59 percent of sea birds like albatross and pelicans, in 100 percent of sea turtle species and in more than 25 percent of fish sampled from seafood markets around the world.” 

Ocean pollution is not the only consequence of the plastic on the environment. If the plastic packaging doesn’t end up in the oceans, it will be either discarded or buried in landfill or becomes litter that will be carried along by wind into the environment. In some cases, when they degrade, the chemicals from the material components can drain into groundwater and soil. The UN believes that the microplastics releases toxic chemicals like Bisphenol A -better known as BPA- in soil impacting the behaviour of soil fauna like earthworms and carrying disease and even enter the food chain.

Food packaging waste is not a problem we can solve with composting only. As Anne Krieghoff, the recycling manager of the University of California explains, we need to apply “REDUCE, REUSE” over “RECYCLING”.

How To Help?

You can use less plastic in your kitchen or reuse plastic containers, plastic bags or glass jars and consider alternative like beeswax wrappers.

You can also avoid plastic while grocery shopping by bringing reusable bags, choose paper bags over plastic bags and recycle them, select fruits and vegetables in bulk rather than pre-packed. Loop is a great online grocery platform which provides products in reusable containers that customers return for reuse.

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