It’s no secret that our lifestyle choices impact our environment. From the cars we drive, the energy we use and the farmers we support, our daily actions affect our footprint. ‘Environment’ is a broad term, used to describe surroundings on micro and macro levels, so just for clarification, we are talking mega-macro – our planet.
I’m sure you’ve heard that eating less meat and dairy can reduce your ecological footprint (i.e. how many greenhouse gases your choices emit and ultimately are trapped in the atmosphere for a long time). It’s the single most influential thing you can do positively impact our planet’s environmental health.
Our current food system is highly industrialized and seems to be continuing in that direction despite grassroots and social justice efforts to scale down industrial agriculture. Agriculture accounts for 70% of total water use and 93% of extracted water. Plants use considerably less water in production than animals, one reason for the recommendation to shift diets to include more plant-based foods. Thinking in a more social context, there is a direct relationship between the availability of water and the ability to meet nutritional needs. So, if water is scarce, food is scarce.
*Shocking fact: It takes 1,000 kg of water to produce 1 kg of grain. I know, grain is the foundation of a plant-based diet. BUT, over 50% of grain produced in the United States goes to feeding animals, plus more is used to generate agri-fuel (biofuels) for industrial agriculture (inefficient fuel, despite the friendly moniker ‘biofuel’) (source: USDA).
The economics of agriculture due to the industrialized food system have led to huge consolidation of farms and businesses. We have fewer farms, and the farms we do have are growing in size. Consolidation comes with specialization (again, such a nice sounding word), meaning these huge agricultural enterprises are producing single products, or monocultures. This severely reduces biodiversity and resilience, leaving the farms and land without protection from extreme weather, like heavy winds and rain. Cases of soil erosion and nutrient depletion in soil are increasing, and although they may sound like temporary problems, they’re not. Our planet is losing soil at a much faster rate than it’s producing soil. The amount of arable soil left on the planet is dwindling, and it’s concentrated in extreme northern climates not suitable for growing foods.
The industrialized food system was created to make food production more efficient, require less labor, increase resiliency of crops and animals (GMOs) and reduce waste. None of those outcomes are a reality. The energy balance of food production is negative, meaning it takes more energy to produce our food than the food itself provides (in kilocalories). This is true for plants as well as animals, however the equation is slightly more favorable for plant-based foods.
It’s a frustrating system, controlled by few who have no regard for the welfare of the people or planet. There are small changes we can all actively make, to make a large collective difference.
- Eat less meat and dairy. The Lancet published a study suggesting that the climate change recommendation is a 64% reduction in current meat consumption (from 8.8 ounces to 3.2 ounces per day).
- Eat with the seasons. This also includes eating local and supporting local, small farms. See what’s in season near you.
- Reduce packaging. Buy products in bulk, using reusable containers to transport. If you buy something with packaging, try to buy recyclable packaging.
- Reduce food waste. Be conscious about food preparation and buying habits to reduce the amount you waste. Give food to neighbors and friends if you can’t use it. Start composting. In Columbus, there’s an organization that provides empty buckets for people living where they can’t have their own compost piles. You fill up the bucket and exchange it for an empty one!
A food system is like an octopus, it has a complex set of factors. Tugging at one seems isolated, but the rest of the tentacles experience the consequences. The relationship between food and environment is very much the same. Your individual efforts may feel small and inconsequential, but wouldn’t you rather make a teeny difference than be part of the problem? Share your tips in the comments.