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Sustaining ourselves sustainably: five tips for the environmentally conscious foodie

Imagine entering a different kind of supermarket. In this supermarket, each food item carries a tag. On each tag the following information is listed:

  • Origin of food
  • Kilometers travelled to supermarket
  • Quantity of greenhouse gas emissions during production, transport and processing
  • Total water consumption during production and processing
  • Quantity and types of pesticides and fertilizers used
  • Average amount of item wasted
  • If wrapped, time taken for the plastic to break down in landfill

Would it make you think twice about the items you buy?

Most Australians would be unaware that their greatest contribution to climate change is through the food they eat. Much of the public debate around climate change has focused on fossil fuel consumption, the use of renewables and environmental degradation by industry. Individually we think about driving cars, leaving lights on and overusing the central heating.

We don’t naturally associate our eating habits with climate change because the labels on our food offer only nutritional information and tell us how good we’ll feel after eating. However, our food system has a significant impact on the environment. From farm to factory and factory to supermarket our food is caught up in a world of land clearing, emissions intensive farming, heavy water consumption and chemicals that pollute our waterways.

It is widely reported that the food industry’s carbon footprint is most significantly impacted by livestock production. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that livestock production alone is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the entire transport sector. Emissions are mainly contributed by ruminant methane production and nitrous oxide from animal waste and fertilized soils.

Worldwatch Institute estimates that even if we completely eliminated fossil fuels, we will still exceed our threshold of 2 degrees warming by 2030, just from raising animals.

Unfortunately, the environmental impact does not stop at the farm gate. Once our meats, fruits and vegetables have been grown, they are often processed, transforming them into the items we recognise on supermarket shelves. Processing plants have significant environmental impacts through water consumption and waste.

Water consumption in food processing has traditionally been high, as water is used as an ingredient, a cleaning source, transport mechanism and equipment sanitizer. Wastewater from meat processing, which has a considerable organic load, can heavily pollute the environment and have adverse impacts on freshwater ecology if discharged into rivers without adequate treatment. Chemical waste created during the processing of seafood, dairy and vegetables carries similar dangers.

After food is grown and processed, it has to be delivered to us. The average meal travels 1200 km to get to our plates. You can see how the carbon emissions start to stack up. Interestingly, carbon emissions from transport represent only 11% of the carbon footprint on average, with approximately 83% coming from how the food is grown.

Studies have shown that chemical farming consumes significantly more energy per unit of production than organic farming. Nitrogen based chemical inputs such as synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used in soils produce nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with approximately 300 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

So what can we do about this? Here’s five tips for the environmentally conscious foodie:

1. Eat less meat

Individually, the biggest contribution we can make to reduce our carbon footprint is eating less meat. It has been argued that eating less red meat would be a more effective way to curb carbon emissions than giving up driving cars. So entrenched is meat in our culture that the thought of substituting steamed vegetables for steak may sound sacrilegious. If that’s the case, just begin with eating one less meat meal a week and see if you can reduce further over time.

2. Minimise food waste

Wherever possible, reduce food waste. If this means buying less then buy less. Eat dinner left overs for lunch the next day and learn from the times you bought too many vegetables and had to throw them in the bin. Food waste breaks down in landfill to become a key source of carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Decreasing unnecessary demand for food will have an impact on the quantity supplied to the betterment of the environment. Use the Love Food Hate Waste and Love Your Leftovers apps to purchase the right quantities and transform left overs into new meals.

3. Preference local produce

Purchasing fresh, local and seasonal produce helps to combat the emissions produced during transport and storage. Exploring farmers markets helps you find fresh produce grown locally and you can meet the people who produce your food. The Farmers Markets app from the Victorian Farmers Market Association and ‘Seasons’ app helps you locate farmers market near you.

4. Go organic

Buy organic. In addition to being better for the environment, there are extensive health benefits. Because organic foods are grown in healthy soils, the nutritional content is typically greater, containing more vitamins and minerals. Organic farms promote genetic biodiversity, cause less water pollution and reduce soil damage.

5. Look for sustainability certifications

Finally, ensure you purchase foods with sustainability certifications. Key labels to look out for include MSC (fish) and the Rainforest Alliance (tea, chocolate). There are numerous apps to help you with this. Try Shop Ethical! and Sustainable Seafood Guide.

As our population continues to grow, global pressure on food systems will only intensify. Each of us has a role to play to help steer our planet in the direction of sustainability. Let’s begin with how we sustain ourselves.

Joshua Appelboom is a Consultant at ACCSR.

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