Food and the Environment

Written by nana@lovehatechange 
Published 01 Feb 2020. Updated 23 Feb 2020.

Food lies at the heart of trying to tackle climate change, reducing water stress, pollution, restoring lands back to forests or grasslands, and protecting the world’s wildlife

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020)  – “Environmental impacts of food production”
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The research by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser in 2020 repeats messages you may have heard many times before – such that we should drastically reduce our consumption of red meat – but also rectifies some common misconceptions. They share a lot of interesting data showing the environmental impact of food production from many angles such as land use per kilogram of food product; land use per amount of kilocalories and protein produced; carbon footprint and water footprint. The data presented on this page is from this research unless other reference is shown.

Data that might surprise you

The following data is worth some reflection:

Most impactful positive actions you can take

Taking into account the carbon emissions, land use, water footprint as well as eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients in water), the most positive actions an individual can take are:

1 These items have high freshwater use in areas suffering from water scarcity
2 There is a big variation depending on the produce – see more about this below

Why is impact of cheese so high?

It’s partially for the same reason why beef is so high:the way microbes in the cows’ digestive tracts break down and ferment food produce methane in the process. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). The other reason is simply the quantity of milk required: to produce 1 kilogram cheddar, it takes almost 10 litres of whole milk. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions of cheese overall is 40% less compared to beef  (beef herd) – but four times more than that of poultry.

Cheese produces four times more greenhouse gases than poultry

Choose your prawns wisely

This is a bit tricky: the sustainability of prawns varies hugely. Marine Conservation Society (MCS) rates seafood from 1 to 5, so that the most environmentally sustainable choices are rated 1 and 2, and produce to avoid are rated 5. Their Good Fish Guide lists several species of prawn, and each species can have several products. For example, there are three  Northern Shrimp products, of which one has been rated 1, another 2 and the third one 4. Their capture methods and areas are the same, the difference is how they are stocked. It’s worth checking that your seafood has the MSC or ASC certificate.

You may find the following guidelines by MSC handy
  1. SUSTAINABLE CHOICE: small cold water (Northern) prawnsif they’re the size of a 20p piece, you’re good!

  2. THINK TWICE: langoustine and scampi. They impact to the seafloor and cause the unwanted capture of other fish when trawling for them. In some areas, fishing pressure is also too high.

  3. THINK TWICE: tiger & king, the big prawns in your supermarket. The trouble is prawn farming and hence impact on the environment is very diverse. The best choice at the moment is to choose organic, but Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certified prawns are an ok choice.

  4. STEER CLEAR: the big prawns in your takeaway. MSC  have some concerns about their production. We don’t know enough about what they are fed or how the industry is regulated.

Source: Above guideline text is copied from MSC article here.

How about locally produced beef?

Against a general belief, apart from air-freighted food, transport is a small contributor to emissions. In beef from beef herds, it’s just 0.5%. Thus, eating local beef or lamb does not make it environmentally friendly. 

How do I know which food is airfreighted?

Food that spoils fast and is coming from far away. In Northern Europe for example out of season berries, green beans and asparagus.

Why amount of land use matters?

Quoting from  OECD : land is a critical factor for environmental sustainability; it affects CO2 emissions and biodiversity. Land use also has consequences for public health, for example by influencing air pollution and determining whether cities are walkable.

The loss of biodiversity is staggering. “Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970” reported Guardian already in 2018. The biggest reason for this is the loss of animals’ natural habitat when it’s being converted to farmland. Ilkka Hanski, who passed away in 2016, talks about this in his excellent farewell lecture.