Reducing you impact

Food puts more strain on the planet than your car or home. These three simple tips can make a huge difference.

1. Eat more plants

Unlike animals, plants do not need to be fed food many times their weight, so they require less land. And, unlike livestock, plants don’t burp and fart out greenhouse gases, they absorb them.

Producing meat protein requires up to 17 times as much land as vegetable protein, up to 26 times as much water, and up to 7 times as much phosphate, a dwindling natural resource1. Beef emissions are nearly 70 times those of oats6. Growing 1 Kg of beef requires around 10 Kgs of plant food4.

Slashed and burned rainforest in Thailand.

Since 1961, global livestock numbers have swelled from 7 billion to close to 30 billion2. To make room we have felled much irreplaceable natural forest. Between 1985 and 2010 forests were cleared from an area the size of India3. This has had a devastating effect on the earth’s ability so soak up green house gases. Add the burps and farts4 and livestock’s impact could be as high as half of the global total5.

Compare various food emissions. 

Takeaway: Eat more plants.

2. Avoid out-of-season produce

It isn’t normal for tomatoes to grow in the middle of a Swiss winter. If you find them in the supermarket they might have been grown in the equivalent of a coal-fired igloo. Ask. If you don’t get a good answer, assume the worst.

A european hot house in winter.

An Austrian winter tomato has 12 times the emissions of a summer one. One brought from Spain has close to 6 times that of a summer one – better but still bad7.

Some food ships well. If it does, has been grown somewhere warm and came on a boat or across land it is probably OK. Apples, carrots and onions are examples.

Foods to watch out for are out-of-season tomatoes, asparagus, beans, mangetout, berries, cherries and grapes.

Takeaway: Tomatoes are for summer.

3. Avoid flown food

Food miles are complicated, but folks who say food flown across the world sometimes beats locally grown stuff miss the point.

A container of freight being loaded on to a plane.

Air transport emissions are around 100 times those from shipping8, so just because vegetables grown locally in a turbo-charged diesel tent have higher emissions, doesn’t make the flown ones planet friendly.

Sea and land transport are different. Because they are lower impact, how the food is produced is what matters most. So a tomato grown in the Spanish sunshine and shipped to wintery Switzerland is easily better than one grown locally in a heated hothouse. But it still doesn’t beat a tinned one grown in summer.

If you see perishable fresh fruit and vegetables from Africa, Asia or the Americas, go for the Swiss chard instead.

Foods to watch out for are out-of-season tomatoes, asparagus, avocados, beans, mangetout, berries, cherries, grapes and fresh fish.

Takeaway: By land or sea maybe, but food by plane is insane.

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References:

1Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices – The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
2FAO Stat – Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
3Cattle ranching and deforestation – Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
4Livestock’s long shadow – Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
5Livestock and climate change – World Watch Institute
6Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK
7Contrasted greenhouse gas emissions from local versus long-range tomato production
8The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development