As of 2021, there are a staggering 7.9 BILLION people living on our planet, all of whom need to feed to survive. However, 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from our global food systems. How can this be? We break it down, and look at potential solutions…
What’s the issue?
Our diets and agriculture are degrading multiple ecosystems, depleting water resources and adding increasingly to climate change. 70% of all freshwater is used during agricultural practices in systems such as irrigation, and 1/3 of ice-free land worldwide is used for growing crops and keeping livestock, with much of that land previously providing forest habitats for an abundance of wildlife. The transportation involved in food production accounts for around 10% of all food-related emissions, whist livestock production contributes up to half! Currently, 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is attributed to clearing land for cattle ranches, and whilst trees are also cleared for the production of palm and soy, 75% of all soy beans grown are actually used to feed livestock! Palm oil is also found in 50% of packaged supermarket products, many of which are edible and readily unknowingly consumed by meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike.
Does a vegan diet really solve the problem?
Although plant-based foods come with greatly reduced emissions when compared to meat and poultry, we must still be mindful about the foods we consume when considering our planetary impact. Some imported fruit and veg may have a larger carbon footprint than poultry if they have been flown in, and may have been grown in hotter countries where more water is required to grow produce – a single mature avocado tree in California, for example, needs up to 209 litres (46 gallons) every day in the summer – more than would fill a large bathtub. This is particularly true of fruit and vegetables that are out of season, yet are often a staple of the vegan diet. Therefore, without careful consideration, our well-intended diets might carry hidden consequences.
Furthermore, many ready-made meat-free substitutes contain products, such as soya, that may have been grown unsustainably.
What’s the solution?
This is the hard part: there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, particularly where beliefs and opinions differ so greatly…
Shopping for locally produced, seasonal produce is a simple way to reduce transportation emissions and support your local farming community, whilst taking care to consider how and where your food products are grown and transported.
However, plant-based foods do have a smaller carbon footprint generally, and according to the IPCC, moving away from a meat-intensive diet to one that excludes animal products would reduce emissions from food by a staggering 49% if we all took the responsibility for our own consumption and carefully considered what we replace meat with.
Despite this, it is currently thought that less than 1% of the world’s population follows a vegan diet, though there are strong indications that this figure is dramatically increasing.
Clearly, veganism isn’t accessible or suitable (or even desirable!) to everyone, but simply reducing meat intake periodically can benefit the environment. We recently spoke exclusively to nutritionist, James Sandom, who wrote a guide for Planetary You about flexitarian diets and the benefits to both the planet and your health. You can read James’s article here!
Whatever you do to protect your planet can and will make a difference… it all starts with YOU!