18 Jan Saving the World_ Why You Might Be Doing It Wrong & How to Get It Right

(Hint: look at your eco­lo­gi­cal footprint)


What you do, and how you do it

You ride your bike to work or use public trans­por­ta­tion, you use energy effi­ci­ent LED lights at home, you turn your com­pu­ter screen off during your lunch break, you bring your own to-go cup to your favo­rite cof­fee place, your elec­tri­city comes from cer­ti­fied rene­wable sour­ces, you sort and sepa­rate waste, you try to buy less “stuff” and if you do it’s often second hand — you care.

These are all good (and by the way easy) buil­ding blocks to help create a more sus­tainable way of life, and ensure we have a future on this pla­net, but as the title pro­vo­ca­tively pro­claims, you might be mis­sing out on the most essen­tial fac­tor to miti­ga­ting the destruc­tion of our pla­net – food.

Eco­lo­gi­cal Footprint

To under­stand how the food indus­try has such a large impact, we turn to the so-called eco­lo­gi­cal foot­print. The eco­lo­gi­cal foot­print is “a mea­sure of how much area of bio­lo­gi­cally pro­duc­tive land and water an indi­vi­dual, popu­la­tion or activity requi­res to pro­duce all the resour­ces it con­su­mes and to absorb the waste it gene­ra­tes” (Glo­bal Foot­print Net­work, 2015). In other words it quan­ti­fies the amount of resour­ces or bio-capacity we humans use (demand) and what is actually avail­able on Earth (supply) to a key figure – glo­bal hec­ta­res (gha). The avail­able bio-capacity per per­son is 1.7 gha (supply), but 85% of coun­tries use more than they can renew (Glo­bal Foot­print Net­work, 2016). This means we have one pla­net, but are cur­rently rep­le­nis­hing resour­ces as if we had 1.6 pla­nets based on the glo­bal aver­age. Even more striking, if the world popu­la­tion lived an aver­age Ame­ri­can life­style, we would need 5 pla­nets to cover the costs (WWF, 2014).

For fur­ther ana­ly­sis, the eco­lo­gi­cal foot­print can be divi­ded in 4 end-use cate­go­ries: shel­ter & energy, goods (con­sump­tion), food, and mobi­lity (BUND Jugend, 2011). Depen­ding on the coun­try, the impact of each cate­gory can dif­fer, due to natio­nal infra­struc­ture and govern­men­tal ser­vices and activi­ties. Based on Ger­many, the aver­age eco­lo­gi­cal foot­print com­pri­ses of the following:


  • Legend One

  • Legend Two

  • Legend Three

Figure 1: Ger­man eco­lo­gi­cal foot­print by end-use cate­gory – Source: BUND Jugend, 2011

With food being the lar­gest cate­gory (35%) impac­ting the eco­lo­gi­cal foot­print, the most poten­tial lies in food choices, which means each one of us has the power to create sub­stan­tial change on the way to a sus­tainable future. But how does food demand so much of our planet’s bio-capacity?

Food – It’s environ­men­tal impact

To ana­lyze the environ­men­tal impacts of food, we need to ans­wer these ques­ti­ons: what we eat, when we eat it, where it is from, how it’s pro­du­ced, and our beha­vior regar­ding pre­pa­ra­tion and waste.

What we eat

Depen­ding on the type of food we con­sume, the impact can vary. If you are a vege­ta­rian or have ever had a hea­ted debate with one, you may have heard that the con­sump­tion of ani­mal pro­ducts is bad for the environ­ment. The WWF con­duc­ted a study into Ger­man food con­sump­tion, and iden­ti­fied the amount of land necessary to pro­duce dif­fe­rent food types. Ani­mal pro­ducts top the list with milk ran­king first place, fol­lo­wed by pork, beef, and other ani­mal pro­ducts. Only a quar­ter of land use goes to plant based foods (WWF Ger­many, 2012, p. 42).


Figure 2: Ger­man land usage based on con­sump­tion 2008–2010 – source: WWF Ger­many, Tonne für die Tonne, p. 42.

The rea­son for the high impact of ani­mal pro­ducts reve­als its­elf when con­side­ring the value chain of our food pro­duc­tion. Not only do the ani­mals them­sel­ves take up land, but they need to eat. And this requi­res resour­ces, water and land as well. Since ani­mal feed mainly con­sists of soy, this is impor­ted from Bra­zil and Argen­tina. Glo­bally speaking, livestock pro­duc­tion accounts for 80% of all agri­cul­tu­ral land in 2014, up from 70% in 2006 (WWF, 2014, p. 5) (Food And Agri­cul­ture Orga­niza­tion, 2006).

Fur­ther­more, livestock is the lar­gest con­tri­bu­tor of green­house gases (in CO2–equi­valents — CO2–e), due to defo­re­sta­tion for pas­tu­res and feed crops and pro­du­cing green­house gases with hig­her glo­bal war­ming poten­tial (GWP) than CO2, such as methane (23 times hig­her), and nitrous oxide (296 times hig­her). In 2006, livestock were also responsi­ble for approx..two-thirds of ammo­nia emis­si­ons, cau­sing acid rain and the aci­di­fi­ca­tion of our eco­sys­tems (Food And Agri­cul­ture Orga­niza­tion, 2006). Though the increase of glo­bal meat con­sump­tion since 2006, this figure has surely risen.

Livestock is also a major stres­sor on fresh water supplies. The Food and Agri­cul­ture Orga­niza­tion (FAO) pre­su­mes this sec­tor to be the lar­gest source of water pollu­tion, enhan­cing “dead” zones, con­tri­bu­ting to the decay of coral reefs, and cau­sing human health pro­blems, also through crea­ting anti­bio­tic resis­tance. This is due to ani­mal was­tes, anti­bio­tics and hor­mo­nes used in livestock pro­duc­tion, che­mi­cals from tan­ne­ries, fer­ti­li­zers and pesti­ci­des used for feed crops, and sedi­ments from ero­ded pas­tu­res (Food And Agri­cul­ture Orga­niza­tion, 2006).

The imp­li­ca­ti­ons don’t stop there — livestock pro­duc­tion can hin­der the rep­le­nish­ment of freshwa­ter by com­pac­ting soil, degrade banks of water cour­ses, dry up flood­plains and lower water tables, and is accor­ding to the FAO my be the lea­ding player in the reduc­tion of bio­di­ver­sity, to name a few (Food And Agri­cul­ture Orga­niza­tion, 2006).

By redu­cing the amount of ani­mal pro­ducts we con­sume, a con­side­ra­ble step towards cli­mate change miti­ga­tion can be under­ta­ken. The best part is, this is a win-win situa­tion (aside from the obvious of saving the pla­net we live on) – meat con­sump­tion, mainly red meat, is bad for our health, and can increase the risks of can­cer, dia­be­tes and car­dio­vas­cu­lar disea­ses (Har­vard School of Public Health, 2012). The sug­gested amount of meat con­sump­tion per week, accor­ding to the Ger­man Asso­cia­tion for Nut­ri­tion is 300 grams for women, and 600 grams for men. The Ger­man aver­age in 2013 was approx. 1,7 kg/week. In one year, that is over 88 kilos of meat per per­son (Bun­des­ver­band der Deut­schen Fleisch­wa­ren­in­dus­trie e.V., 2014, S. 10).

If we look at how many ani­mals that would be in total, here is what it would look like accor­ding to the Ger­man aver­age life­time con­sump­tion – 4 cows, 4 lambs, 12 geese, 37 ducks, 46 pigs, 46 tur­keys and 945 chi­ckens. German_average_lifetime_consumption

Figure 3: Ger­man aver­age life­time con­sump­tion — Source:

Not only does our pla­net bene­fit from lower ani­mal pro­duct con­sump­tion, but also our health (which also leads to the reduc­tion of health care costs).

When we eat it, and where it is from

What we eat is import­ant, but also when we eat it, which is lin­ked to where it is from – in short, is it sea­so­nal and regio­nal? Again, it is essen­tial to look at the ent­ire value chain. If we eat non-seasonal pro­ducts, more energy is necessary, eit­her because it needs to be impor­ted and/or is grown in green­hou­ses, which use 30% more energy due to e.g. the hea­ting of green­hou­ses. Even sea­so­nal pro­ducts can be impor­ted, which is why con­su­mer awa­ren­ess is essen­tial to crea­ting a sus­tainable future. Many com­pa­nies lobby against the decla­ra­tion of the coun­try of ori­gin, cit­ing dis­cri­mi­na­tion as the rea­son. But buy­ing for example app­les from New Zea­land, when Ger­many it’s self is a large pro­du­cer, has not­hing to do with dis­cri­mi­na­tion but com­mon sense.

This brings us to the next link in the value chain – the trans­por­ta­tion of food. For peris­hable foods, from dis­tance pla­ces the air­plane is fas­test solu­tion to trans­port foods to mar­kets, as well as the worst in regard to it’s affect on the environ­ment. An air­plane emits on aver­age approx.. 540 grams of CO2–e per ton-kilometer (tkm) tra­ve­led. Other means of trans­por­ta­tion include trucks with 67,2 g CO2–e/tkm, trains (18,5 g CO2–e/tkm), deep-sea ves­sels (14,8 g CO2–e/tkm), and inland ves­sels (16,6 g CO2–e/tkm), (Kranke, 2011, S. 118). Food trans­port may also require coo­ling en route as well as during sto­rage upon arri­val to it’s desti­na­tion, con­su­ming even more energy.

How it is produced

Step­ping back to the begin­ning of the value chain, we look at how food is pro­du­ced. The ques­tion here is, if it is accor­ding to orga­nic stan­dards[1]? This is where it can get tri­cky. Nowa­days there is a wide variety of “orga­nic” stan­dards, each with their own label. But behind these labels the stan­dards can dif­fer, with some more restric­tive and others just being a mar­ke­ting tool with no substance.

In the EU there is legis­la­tion regar­ding orga­nic far­ming defined by the so cal­led EG Öko-Verordnung (EU orga­nic direc­tive). If a far­mer wis­hes to become an orga­nic far­mer accor­ding to this stan­dard, they must abide by cer­tain objec­tives and prin­ci­ples such as (Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, 2014):

  • Wide crop rota­tion as a pre­re­qui­site for an effi­ci­ent use of on-site resources
  • Very strict limits on che­mi­cal syn­the­tic pesti­cide and syn­the­tic fer­ti­li­zer use, livestock anti­bio­tics, food addi­ti­ves and pro­ces­sing aids and other inputs
  • Abso­lute pro­hi­bi­tion of the use of gene­ti­cally modi­fied organisms
  • Taking advan­tage of on-site resour­ces, such as livestock manure for fer­ti­li­zer or feed pro­du­ced on the farm
  • Choo­sing plant and ani­mal spe­cies that are resis­tant to disease and adap­ted to local conditions
  • Rai­sing livestock in free-range, open-air sys­tems and pro­vi­ding them with orga­nic feed
  • Using ani­mal hus­bandry prac­tices appro­priate to dif­fe­rent livestock species

There are also stric­ter stan­dards as well, such as Deme­ter. Some retail com­pa­nies have crea­ted their own stan­dards and labels, but these usually have wea­ker demands or only look at one environ­men­tal aspect.

When loo­king at con­ve­ni­ence and fast food, a fur­ther step in the pro­duc­tion pro­cess is added, which also means the use of more energy and other resour­ces, and can also have an impact on our health. Pro­ces­sed foods use addi­ti­ves, aro­mas, and fla­vor enhan­cers to achieve con­sis­tent fla­vor. For example, in the bun of a Mc Donald’s cheese­bur­ger the fol­lo­wing ingre­dients are used:

Enri­ched Unbleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Mal­ted Bar­ley Flour, Nia­cin, Redu­ced Iron, Thia­min Mono­ni­trate, Rib­of­la­vin, Folic Acid), Water, High Fruc­tose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Soy­bean Oil, Con­tains 2% or Less: Salt, Wheat Glu­ten, Lea­ve­ning (Cal­cium Sul­fate, Ammo­nium Sul­fate), May Con­tain One or More Dough Con­di­tio­ners (Sodium Stearoyl Lacty­late, DATEM, Ascor­bic Acid, Mono and Dig­ly­ce­ri­des, Mono­cal­cium Phos­phate, Enzy­mes, Cal­cium Peroxide), Cal­cium Pro­pio­nate (Pre­ser­va­tive) (Mc Donald’s, 2016).

Com­pa­red to what you would use if you baked bread your­self (wheat, water, yeast, salt) this list is very long. Also, each ingre­dient also has it’s own value chain and uses up raw mate­ri­als and resour­ces in it’s pro­duc­tion process.

Food pre­pa­ra­tion and waste

Moving along the value chain, after pro­duc­tion fol­lows con­sump­tion, and the end of the pro­duct life cycle some­ti­mes being waste. In the start­ling docu­men­tary “Taste the Waste” by Valen­tin Thurn, we are made aware, that 50% of food lands in the trash, a big por­tion of it even before reaching con­su­mers. For instance, 40–50% of pota­toes are sor­ted out on the field. The color of a tomato is mea­su­red by a com­pu­ter, and if it doesn’t have the right hue, it is sor­ted out. 90 mil­lion tons of food are was­ted in Europe alone. Euro­pean hou­se­holds though out 100 bil­lion Euros worth of food each year. Some­ti­mes food is trans­por­ted around the world, just to land on a dump on the other side of the pla­net. The food was­ted in North Ame­rica and Europe alone would be enough to feed all hungry people on Earth three times over. The­re­fore it is not necessary to manu­fac­ture gene­ti­cally modi­fied orga­nisms to help feed the world, when what we really need to do is stop was­ting half of the food that is alre­ady being produced.

By chan­ging what we eat, the choices we make when shop­ping, and how we deal with food waste, we can reduce our eco­lo­gi­cal foot­print and con­tri­bute lar­gely to the miti­ga­tion of cli­mate change, wit­hout inno­va­tion and new tech­no­lo­gies to first be deve­l­o­ped and sca­led. Not only do we collec­tively bene­fit from an intact pla­net, but also as indi­vi­du­als, since “you are what you eat — So don’t be fast, easy, cheap or fake” (source unknown).

[1] Fair trade stan­dards are also essen­tial for the sus­tainable pro­duc­tion of food. For this arti­cle, the focus is on the environ­men­tal aspects of food production.






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Bun­des­ver­band der Deut­schen Fleisch­wa­ren­in­dus­trie e.V. (2014). Geschäfts­be­richt 2013/2014.

Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. (2014, 09 17). Agri­cul­ture and Rural Deve­lop­ment — What is orga­nic far­ming? Retrie­ved 03/21/2016, from Euro­pean Com­mis­sion:

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Thurn, V. (Direc­tor). (2011). Taste the Waste [Motion Picture].

WWF Ger­many . (2012). Ton­nen für die Tonne. Berlin.

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