It cannot be only about our well-being. We need to consider the health of our planet while making food-related decisions. The world is in peril as we experience extreme weather events — heatwaves, droughts, forest fires, floods, cloud bursts, cyclones and what not. It’s code red for planet Earth. Among the many steps that need to be taken is the food we put on our plates. We need to rework our eating style to make room for sustainable eating.
Food and climate
We are living in a hot, crowded and hungry world. Every human action — like what we eat, how we commute or the fuel we use — has a carbon footprint, which has an impact on the planet. Carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane — that are generated by our actions. The more greenhouse gases we produce, the more we are contributing to global warming.
A quarter of global emissions come from food, to be precise, from industrial production of food. What we eat makes an impact on the climate. However, emissions from production, transportation and distribution of different foods vary.
Livestock production, which includes meat and milk, is considered to have a bigger impact on the planet than other human activities. It uses one-third of the world’s fresh water and needs vast areas of land for cows to graze. Meat production contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Raising and transportation of animals adds to the environ-mental burden. It requires more food, water, land, and energy than plants. Dairy farming has a great impact on the climate too. Methane from ruminant belching and animal waste contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Methane, the most potent of these greenhouses gases, has a stronger warming effect than carbon dioxide.
Rice cultivation emits twice the amount of harmful gases as wheat. It has been reported that growing rice in flooded paddy fields causes up to 12 per cent of global emissions of methane.
In the instances mentioned above, the production of the food itself has a high carbon footprint. However, in case of seafood, fuel consumption to catch fish and its transportation affects its carbon footprint. Fish caught in high seas, like tuna, cod and so on, requires a large boat to travel longer distances compared to a small boat moving less distance to catch local species.
Farther you travel, more fuel you burn. Moreover, transporting seafood for processing and packaging and then for export can skyrocket fuel consumption, leading to higher emissions. Let’s take the example of consuming salmon. It’s nutritionally healthy, however, the environmental burden of transporting salmon to India has a much higher carbon footprint than eating salmon in Norway. Hence, eating salmon in India is not a sustainable practice.
These products are a source of nutrition and food security for a significant chunk of the population as well. The solution does not lie in stopping consumption of such foods but finding ways of producing them in less damaging ways. Technology and innovation can help in reducing carbon footprint of such agricultural activities.
Evidently, improving the way we produce food is critical in the fight against climate change.
Go for it: Choose broccoli over asparagus as both are rich in vitamins and minerals; Instead of blueberries, eat Indian varieties like jamun, amla and phalsa; Consuming yoghurt has a lower carbon footprint than eating cheese despite both being dairy products
What is sustainable eating?
Eating sustainably means choosing foods that are both healthy for the environment as well as our bodies. The concept of sustainability implies production of plant and animal products with minimal damage to the environment by employing farming techniques and practices that save natural resources. Extreme climate destroys crops and land, giving rise to climate refugees, hunger and poverty. Sustainability emphasises that all people across the globe receive adequate food and nutrition, without causing much damage to the surrounding natural habitats.
We need to explore where our food comes from and how it is produced. Some foods are an obvious choice for eating healthy but may not be the best option in the context of the planet’s health. Such as, choosing broccoli over asparagus is a sustainable choice (both are rich in vitamins and minerals), since asparagus requires more water to grow as compared to broccoli. Consuming yoghurt has a lower carbon footprint than eating cheese despite both being dairy products. To meet your carbohydrate needs, choose potatoes instead of rice and pasta, for potatoes are more environmentally sustainable due to lower emissions and lower consumption of water.
Don’t panic. You don’t have to completely alter your diet in the name of reducing carbon footprint. Eating right for the planet only requires a few modifications to your regular diet. Even a small change can collectively make a difference.
Show restrain: Pick a fruit for snack instead of a packet of chips when you want to nibble on something; Salmon is nutritionally healthy, however, the environmental burden of transporting it to India has a much higher carbon footprint than eating salmon in Norway; To meet your carbohydrate needs, choose potatoes instead of rice and pasta, for potatoes are more environmentally sustainable due to lower emissions and lower consumption of water
Let’s get started
Do not waste food: Wasting food means wasting carbon footprint. If we stopped wasting food, we would be reducing carbon emissions by eight per cent. The energy and water consumed to produce the food, the fuel used to cook that food get wasted each time you waste food. One should cook and eat as much as required, even if you are eating at a buffet, party or weddings.
Limit processed and packaged food: The food that comes from the factory has a higher carbon footprint than eating a fresh product. A simple way to do this is pick a fruit for snack instead of a packet of chips when you want to nibble on something. It’s low on calories and hidden carbon too. It is a great way to improve your health while being mindful of the planet.
Eat local not global: If we eat foods which are grown locally, we unconsciously reduce fossil fuel consumption for transporting food to the market. It is a great way to support your local farming community. It keeps your money in the community in which you live and helps foster a healthy environment of diversity. You can adopt a “100-mile diet” approach, which advocates consumption of food products, which are grown within a radius of 100 mile of your location. It lays emphasis on shifting your focus from eating global to eating local. Blueberries are not native to India and most of the fresh varieties are imported from overseas. So if you want to eat local, eat Indian varieties like jamun, amla and phalsa.
Eat seasonal: Watermelons don’t grow in winter, yet you find them available fresh and juicy all round the year. This means they’re probably coming from faraway places, which translates into higher carbon emissions. When you eat fruits and vegetables that are in season, you get maximum flavour and nutrients.
Grow some food: Try to grow something even if it means a small pot of herbs. If space is not a constraint, set up a small kitchen garden and grow your own vegetables. Commercial farming consumes huge amounts of fuel. Farm equipment, like tractors, use fuel for cultivation and then a lot more is used for transportation of these vegetables to the local markets and supermarket shelves. Extra fuel is burnt when you go grocery shopping. Therefore, growing some food can help reduce carbon emission. Further, your food is organic, free of chemicals and not to forget the joy and pride which comes with nurturing and growing your own food.
Reduce meat consumption (more applicable to Western societies): Compared to plants, meat production is water, land and is greenhouse gas intensive. You can simply reduce the amount of meat eaten and frequency of consumption. Also eat better quality meat, which means eat meat from pasture-raised animals instead of factory raised ones. However, in India, a large population is protein and iron deficient, so completely avoiding meat may not be a great idea.
Eat more plant-based food: If you are a hardcore carnivore, try to include more plant-based food, like pulses, different variety of grains and nuts in your diet. It will help reduce freshwater withdrawals and deforestation.
Hena Nafis is a consultant nutritionist and the owner of nutrition and lifestyle clinic Nutrience, and the health cafe, Eat Good Food. You can follower her on Facebook and Instagram @officialhenanafis