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.
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:
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.
Figure 3: German average lifetime consumption — Source: zdf.de
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? 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).
 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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European Commission. (2014, 09 17). Agriculture and Rural Development — What is organic farming? Retrieved 03/21/2016, from European Commission: http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/organic/organic-farming/what-is-organic-farming/index_en.htm
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