We are living in a time of environmental destruction, exacerbated by a rising population, volatile politics, conflicts, climate change, urbanisation, and an evolution of consumers’ diets. This dangerous combination of forces creates a recipe for disaster for the health of people and the planet. In an era of post-truth and nationalism we need to find a way to unite against environmental destruction.
Our globalised food system has huge environmental impacts along the food chain; from the moment a seed is planted, to taking our first bite of a meal and dealing with leftovers. The food system represents a complex juncture between nature and humans, but we are exploiting nature; using an equivalent of 1.6 planets for the natural resources and ecosystem services consumed in a year.
We rely on soil for food production but it is a non-renewable resource, and globally one third of soil is degraded from deforestation, poor farming practices, and urbanisation. Our food system uses vast quantities of natural resources, such as phosphorous, water and energy. The water footprint of food products can be astronomical, especially meat products. The food system is dependent on fossil fuels, and it has recently been estimated that sometime after January 2018 there will be an energy crisis, as 81% of the world’s oil supply has already peaked in production, leading to increased global food prices.
75% of our food crops rely on pollination by insects and other animals; but key pollinators such as bees and butterflies are facing extinction. Climate change increases disasters such as droughts and flooding, which destroy agriculture and infrastructure. Rising temperatures and sea level reduce agricultural land, which impacts livelihoods and increases poverty.
We are draining the oceans of fish to feed ourselves, but in the future we might only have jelly fish left to feed on. Emerging economies are consuming more meat and dairy, and animal products are everywhere, including the new UK £5 notes! Our reliance on animal products causes deforestation and pollution, and estimates of the contribution of livestock to annual global greenhouse gas emissions range from 18% to 51%. This is more than all emissions from the transport sector.
This is a bleak picture and we will all be affected in some way. It might be a case of changing your diet to accommodate what food is available for an affordable price. Or you might lose your land to the desert and not be able to feed your family.
The environmental burden we face is made even more precarious by the volatile political situation. War and conflict damage the environment through land contamination, deforestation, and plunder of natural resources. Citizens flee from their homes and refugee camps magnify soil erosion and pollution. Food insecurity is both a cause and consequence of conflict and demonstrates the complexity and fragility of the food system. Combined with the uncertainty of how Brexit will replace food related regulations, and what climate change sceptic Trump will decide to do, puts the future of our planet in jeopardy.
All these consequences are preventable if we move to a sustainable food system which cares for people and the planet; enabling nutrition security and biodiversity. There is increasing consensus on what constitutes a sustainable diet, so now we need to focus on making these changes, both at an individual level and at a national policy level. The Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition demonstrates the link between food and the environment, and identifies where we should be consuming along the food chain:
(Double Pyramid. Source: BCFN, 2015. Available from: https://www.barillacfn.com/en/dissemination/double_pyramid/)
One thing I find frustrating is that every time I say “we need to act now”, there is acknowledgement of the need, but it is quickly followed by excuses; “I can’t make a difference as an individual”, or “I can’t afford healthy food”. It is a complex issue and availability, accessibility, utilisation and stability all influence what we consume.
Public awareness of the environmental impact of food is low and consumers believe non-food behaviours are a greater priority for mitigating climate change. But sharing knowledge and skills, and empowering individuals can improve the sustainability of the food system. Increasing awareness is crucial and new media ventures like Prince Charles’ Ladybird book about climate change, and Al Gore’s new film ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’ could help. New research is testing whether strategic placing of vegetarian food in supermarkets will increase healthy food purchasing. It has also been shown that healthier food is not necessary more expensive than junk food.
There will always be reasons why we shy away from making changes to the food system, as there are conflicting perspectives and priorities. We know what to do, but we are simply not doing it. Some believe technological advances such as GMO 2.0 and lab grown meat are the answer, whereas others believe a return to a simpler life, without the materialism of modern life, can make you happier and healthier. Whatever the approach, we need to act now. Soon it will be too late; the next 20 years are critical and we need some urgency.
The first step is not to be daunted by the extent of the problem; otherwise we would not achieve anything. If you are wondering where to start, have a look at the video below for some eco-cooking ideas, which will help the planet, and save you money.
(Original video by letschangefood)
I am wary that all these ideas place responsibility on the individual, which I believe is part of the solution, but they are only nudge techniques. It is all too easy to gloss over the bigger issues, such as justice and equality. These form an integral part of a sustainable food system. We desperately need to be helping the vulnerable, marginalised communities. We cannot just concentrate on environmental sustainability; it needs to be just sustainability. Now I have come to this realisation, questioning my assumptions is paramount, and we all need to dig deeper, and work together to effect change in the food system.