FOOD SYSTEMS, encompassing all processes and interactions from food production to consumption and food waste, interact with the environment in multiple ways. Not only are they major sources of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, they also contribute to water and air pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, desertification and land degradation.
How we will feed a growing – and increasingly affluent – world population on the limited land that is suitable for agriculture is one of the greatest challenges of today. With unchanged production and consumption patterns the global food system cannot meet the nutritional demands of a growing world population projected to increase to 10 billion by 2050 without irreversibly damaging the planet. The land requirements of different diets tend to be most strongly correlated to a country’s level of per capita meat consumption and as of today, livestock takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land. Building truly sustainable food systems will require us to stay within the environmentally sustainable limits for food production while at the same time ensuring that our food systems can provide basic human needs like nutrition, employment, health, and more. This will only be possible with structural changes to how food systems operate as well as changes to our appetite for resource intensive and environmentally harmful foods, particularly in high- and middle-income countries where other options are more easily available.
Deterioration of relationships between humans and soil has led to unsustainable management of agricultural, urban and wildland soils, leaving behind degraded ecosystems and endangering human health. Many of us have wandered far from our soil roots and are disconnected from Earth’s Terra Firma. Few realize how much our own health depends on the health of soils: good food; clean air and water; stable climate; disease control. Healthier soils are within reach: basic principles such as feeding it more, disturbing it less, keeping it covered, poisoning it less, can be realized through practices that have been around for years. We are all in this together and our collective health depends on taking care of one another.
FAO Soil Health fact sheet: “Soil health has been defined as the capacity of soil to function as a living system. Healthy soils maintain a diverse community of soil organisms that help to control plant disease, insect and weed pests, form beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots, recycle essential plant nutrients, improve soil structure with positive effects for soil water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improve crop production. A healthy soil also contributes to mitigating climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content.”
The way that animal feeds are grown and managed are crucial for meat’s environmental friendliness. While feeding strategies in poultry and pork production follow a similar pattern in most parts of the world – grain combined with a protein source, often soymeal – the feed sources in global beef production systems show large variations. Beef can be sourced from such diverse production system as cattle grazing on newly deforested land in the Amazon, cattle being raised in North American feedlots intensely fed with concentrates, and cattle pasturing high nature value grasslands in Europe.
During the last decade, research on food environmental sustainability has had a strong focus on calculating greenhouse gas emissions from different agricultural systems and estimating how alternative diets can contribute to the reduced climate impact of food consumption. My strong belief is that research now must widen the analysis of agriculture to include additional urgent environmental aspects when searching for answers on how meat production can/should develop and on which meat types and how much meat we can/should eat in future. Current environmental analyses provide us with an unbalanced picture of agriculture and food systems´ sustainability (1), and it is urgent that we get better data and information about land degradation, biodiversity impacts and negative effects of pesticides and veterinary antibiotics associated with current animal production systems, and this goes for all meat, not only beef.
The concept of agroecology is increasingly discussed as a way of transforming global food systems to meet the Sustainability Development Goals. Consequently, we need to investigate what type of beef production practices fit within this concept. We can do that with the help of 10 principles of agroecology suggested by FAO (2) whereof the principles Diversity; Synergies; Efficiency; Resilience and Recycling are highly relevant when assessing environmental sustainability. Examples of beef production practices encompassing those principles are systems that integrate crop and livestock for optimizing nutrient cycles and integrate dairy and meat for efficiency, includes legumes to reduce nitrogen fertilizer inputs, and production system that have a dominance of forage and pasture as these feed sources (unless deforested land is used) have a high potential of favouring biodiversity and soil health and reducing pesticides.
For seafood production, catching small pelagic fish and farming mollusks have the lowest impacts on the climate. Small pelagic fish like anchovies, herring, and sardines swim in dense schools in the ocean and can be caught more easily and with less fuel than other species. While many small pelagic fish are caught and turned into fish meal, some are eaten, particularly in parts of Africa where small pelagic fish are an essential food source. Farmed mollusks such as clams, mussels, and oysters do not require feed, as do seaweed, which makes them climate-friendly. Looking at the rest of the supply chain, shipping seafood also has climate impacts. Compared to shipping seafood by boat, shipping by air takes 50 times more energy than by boat, and by truck takes 12 times more energy than by boat. Boats are used to ship frozen and canned seafood long distances, while fresh seafood travels by air. When considering seafood products that have come from other countries, consider the climate impacts of product advertised as “never frozen.” Selecting frozen or canned seafood can also limit food waste, which is another contributor to climate change.
More and more plastic is being produced every day, yet studies show that 91 percent of plastic is NOT recycled. So what happens to all that plastic we “throw away?” 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean annually. A portion of this plastic waste is burned, contributing to air pollution. The rest ends up in our landfills and environment. In the U.S, the plastic pollution counted as “recycled” may be exported to countries with poor waste management, where plastic may be crudely processed in unsafe facilities and burnt in open areas, creating additional pollution and human health concerns. Many people do not realize that plastic comes from petroleum and is a source of greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. What can we do to stop this urgent global crisis? Refuse single-use plastic! Think “reusable” instead of “disposable” in your daily choices for food and beverages.
The 2012 World Water Day slogan “The World is Thirsty Because We are Hungry” clearly illustrates the crucial relationship between water and food production. However, most consumers have little idea of this close link between water consumption and food production. Average Americans need about 7,800 liters of water a day. Just 4 percent of this water is used at home for cleaning, cooking and drinking, washing, and showering. A colossal 96% of the water is invisible and is used to produce the food, fiber, and other daily products we use. A hamburger needs 2,400 liters of water; a cup of coffee needs 130 liters; a chocolate bar needs 1,700 liters; a kilo of beef needs 15,000 liters of water. We do need to realize that, through our eating habits and by reducing waste, we will make the world a little more water secure.
Organic agriculture aims to keep an ecological balance by considering the medium- and long-term effect of agricultural interventions on the agro-ecosystem. It takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge. Organic production systems have proven environmental benefits including increased soil quality, enhanced biodiversity, reduced pollution and improved animal welfare. Better soil structure, more organic matter and more living organisms in organically managed soils support fertility and reduce soil erosion while enhancing production resiliency during drought and thus improving food security potential in a growing period of climatic uncertainty. Organic farms often have more semi-natural habitats which help to protect and manage biodiversity. By significantly reducing synthetic pesticide and fertiliser use, organic farming reduces nitrogen and phosphorus leaching which protects our water and own health. Organic animals have more space and access to outdoors to express their natural behaviours. Routine use of preventative medication and antibiotics is restricted for organic animals lowering the risk of antibiotic resistance and helping prolong effectiveness for human medical use. Consuming organic foods significantly lessens exposure to pesticide residues and associated endocrine disrupting chemical that have been linked to cancer and other human health issues. Organic farms often create more jobs and better incomes for farmers and workers. With less pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and antibiotics, and a healthier and more resilient environment, organic farming improves the life of farmers, farm workers, consumers and society.
We cannot live without water. The UN SDG #6 calls to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Despite the progress made in improving the availability of basic drinking water services, today more than 700 million people around the world still lack even this basic service (the WHO defines ‘basic service’ as an improved drinking-water source within a round trip of 30 minutes to collect water).
Safe drinking water is essential for human health, as contaminated water can transmit many diseases, including diarrhea, cholera, and polio. It is estimated that diarrhea caused by contaminated drinking water is responsible for nearly 500,000 death cases each year, many of which are children under the age of 5. In addition, poor water quality impacts education, as water-borne diseases are associated with poor school attendance and thus millions of school days lost. In under-developed and developing regions, the provisioning of safe drinking water contributes significantly to economic growth and improves productivity. That is due to improved health, higher school attendance, and the fact that people need to spend less time and effort collecting and delivering water to their families. The WHO estimated a return of 4.3$ for every 1$ invested in water and sanitation services, and an overall gain of 1.5% of global GDP.
Thanks to regulation and investments in water infrastructure, in nearly all developed countries the quality of tap water is high and tightly monitored, and only rarely an outbreak of water-borne disease occurs. In addition, in most countries safe water is affordable. And yet, the bottled water industry is flourishing and rapidly growing, as many of those who have access to safe and cheap drinking water prefer bottled water over tap water.
Today, millions of people around the world, in developed and developing countries, consume bottled water regularly. To illustrate, in 2007 approximately 212 billion liters of bottled water were consumed globally. By 2017, consumption reached 391 billion liters and consumption per capita increased as well.
It is likely that most consumers are not fully aware of the heavy environmental, social and economic costs associated with the consumption of bottled water. Compared to tap water, the quality of bottled water is less regulated and less monitored. The plastic bottles themselves often release unhealthy chemicals into the water, thus posing various health risks to the drinker. The manufacturing of the plastic bottles requires vast amounts of oil, as does the transportation of raw materials to the factories and final products to consumers. Many tons of CO2 are emitted to the atmosphere during these processes, thus contributing to climate change. While the used plastic bottles can be recycled, more often than not they end their life in landfills or in various ecosystems, where they pose a risk to wildlife. When the plastic wears out to microplastic it can pollute water resources and can accumulate in tissues of animals and humans. As it takes decades for the plastic to decompose, the full health and environmental impacts of bottled water are not yet fully known and understood. So why pay for bottled water which is harmful to the environment and health, and could be tens and even hundreds of times more expensive than the safe tap water running in the pipelines?
“Soy is a globally traded commodity produced in both temperate and tropical regions and serves as a key source of protein and vegetable oils. Since the 1950s, global soybean production has increased 15 times over. The United States, Brazil, and Argentina together produce about 80% of the world’s soy.”
Conventional soy production often contributes to biodiversity loss by deforestation, conversion of valuable grasslands and irresponsible use of chemicals. Good sustainability standards are available to avoid these ecological effects, but still the use of soy for livestock feed uses about five times more land, water and energy than soy for direct human consumption! So, the choice for tofu or other plant protein made from certified deforestation & conversion free, non genetically modified soy is a huge step towards a healthier and climate proof planet.
Leinonen, I., Williams, A.G., Wiseman, J., Guy, J. and Kyriazakis, I. 2012. Predicting the environmental impacts of chicken systems in the UK through a Life Cycle Assessment: egg production systems. Poultry Science 91: 26-40.
Leinonen I, Kyriazakis I (2016) How can we improve the environmental sustainability of poultry production? Proc Nutr Soc. 75(3):265-73.
MacLeod, M., Leinonen, I., Wall, E., Houdijk, J., Eory, V., Burns, J., Vosough Ahmadi, B. and Gomez Barbero, M., (2019) Impact of animal breeding on GHG emissions and farm economics, EUR 29844 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2019, ISBN 978-92-76-10943-3 (online), doi:10.2760/731326 (online), JRC117897.
Hens’ eggs make an important contribution to food security globally by providing affordable, high quality protein in a broadly culturally acceptable form. In developing countries, small scale flocks of poultry provide scarce animal protein and are often essential to women’s incomes and position within their households (FAO 2014). However, like most foods, egg production has some negative impacts on the environment. Most of these impacts arise during the growing of crops for feed and the management of manures excreted by the laying hens. Feed production entails the use of land, fertiliser and energy and the emission of greenhouse gas emissions, losses of nutrients to the environment and impacts on biodiversity. The management of chicken manures can also lead to significant impacts in terms of GHG emissions and nutrient losses. Finally, a small amount of energy is also used on chicken farms, which can have a variety of impacts, depending on the energy source. Many options exist to reduce the impacts of egg production. In small scale production, reducing predation and improving chicken health and genetics can lead to increases in productivity and a reduction in the environmental impact per egg produced. In developed countries, laying hens are already high performing, so the scope for improvement via breeding is more limited (MacLeod et al. 2019). However, other ways of reducing the impact are available, such as the use of enzymes to improve feed digestibility and changes in the way manure is managed (Leinonen and Kyriazakis 2016). Finally, as feed production accounts for most the environmental impact of eggs, improvements in feed crop production (e.g. increasing the efficiency of fertiliser application or increasing soil carbon stocks) will lead to significant reductions in the impact of eggs.
“Oil palm plantations support much fewer species than do forests and often also fewer than other tree crops. Further negative impacts include habitat fragmentation and pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. With rising demand for vegetable oils and biofuels, and strong overlap between areas suitable for oil palm and those of most importance for biodiversity, substantial biodiversity losses will only be averted if future oil palm expansion is managed to avoid deforestation.”
Palm oil is complex. Its long shelf life, affordability and production efficiency (generating 4-10 times the amount of oil than comparable crops like soybean from an acre) makes it a key ingredient in 50% of the products found on supermarket shelves; including frying oil, peanut butter, ice cream, margarine, crackers, and cookies. Palm oil is also used in cosmetics, soaps, to relieve vitamin A deficiency, and pharmaceuticals for the treatment of malaria, and even cyanide poisoning! If it doesn’t sound familiar, maybe you recognize it by one of its other names – palm kernel, vegetable oil, palmitate, glyceryl, stearate, or sodium laureth sulfate.
The widespread use and demand for palm oil complicates solving for the impacts of harmful palm production practices. In Indonesia and Malaysia- where 84% of the world’s palm oil is grown- there are declines in forest and peatlands causing biodiversity loss; displacement of native creatures like orangutans; large climate change causing emissions; and land grabs from indigenous communities to maximize production land.
It’s important for consumers to actively stop support of harmful palm production by identifying palm oil in food ingredients, understanding how and where it is produced, and to hold the industry accountable for transparently promoting traceable and fair practices.
Conventional coffee is a perennial crop with a productive life of about 20 years that is grown on plantations with up to 5000 small trees per ha. This system compares favorably to adjacent field crop production (e.g. maize or soy) because it provides better soil protection, higher carbon stocks, lower machine use, higher biodiversity and a less negative impact on local climate. But quantifying the environmental impact of conventionally-grown coffee is difficult. Large coffee operations with high-input irrigated plantations, pre-emergence herbicides, pesticides and machine harvesters will result in a higher water fooprint and much lower biodiversity than, for example, a system with some functional shade trees, targeted agro-chemical use and manual harvesting. But biodiversity and water footprint impacts pale when compared to the land use impact coffee has that leads to deforestation, an issue which is receiving renewed attention as global warming and demand for high-quality coffee drives coffee production into higher areas with forest cover and high biodiversity. Lastly, roasted coffee is not the product which is consumed – a cappuccino with milk has a carbon, land and water footprint ten times as large as a filter coffee.
For milk I’d refer to SCIENCE MAGAZINE, Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers – by J. Poore and T. Nemececk, but their coffee data differs from studies cited in the coffee sector. So I would use Faostat for coffee land use, AGRONOMY FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, Carbon footprints and carbon stocks reveal climate-friendly coffee production for GHG, and UNESCO/IHE – The Water Needed to Have the Dutch Drink Coffee – by Chapagain and Hoekstra for the water footprint. When assuming 10gr/cup + 200ml milk/Cappuccino then land use is 12x higher, GHG 5x, and water use 8.5x higher for the Cappuccino (when keeping the numbers from Poore&Nemecek, then the factors are 6.5, 2.5, 320).
One in three people in the world suffers from micronutrient deficiencies and one in five children is chronically undernourished. Food biodiversity can help offer a more rich variety of high-nutrient species and varieties. Many nutritious fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds available in the wild or in traditional farming systems are not well known and could be used to improve nutrient adequacy of diets and reduce diet-related illnesses and deaths.
Agriculture contributes around 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, is the single largest user of fresh water on the planet, and covers about 40% of global land area. Using biodiversity-based approaches on this vast area of land can reduce emissions and runoff, decrease the need for synthetic inputs, improve soil quality, encourage pollinators and conserve varieties and species. Biodiversity-based solutions are at the heart of agroecological practices, which intensify production while reducing pressures on the environment and increasing the resilience of our food systems to shocks.
The ultimate strength of agrobiodiversity is its multi-functionality : it contributes to multiple dimensions of sustainability. And that is what sustainable diets is also about: diets that benefit human health, environmental sustainability, cultural ownership and equity. Agrobiodiversity can help achieve on those multiple fronts. Diversity in the diets contributes to more adequate nutrition and culturally appropriate foods, diversity in production systems contribute to ecosystem services and environmental sustainability, diversity in market systems contribute to livelihood and food systems resilience, and provide opportunities for smallholders and agro-businesses. Key is to recognize and connect those multiple benefits of agrobiodiversity across the food system and its critical opportunity for more sustainable diets.