Nutrition / Food

Food Sustainability 101: How to Do It and Why It Matters

Our diets strain the global agricultural system and cause pollution. Here’s how you can help change that.

By 2050, the world population will be 9.8 billion, according to the latest United Nations estimates. We’ll need to produce 56 percent more food by then, and American consumption habits aren’t helping. “The average U.S. diet is about twice as land-intensive, and twice as greenhouse gas-intensive, as the average world diet,” says Richard Waite of the World Resources Institute, an organization that aims to sustainably feed a growing global population, while reducing environmental impact. With Waite’s help, we’ll dig into the topic of food sustainability and find out how minor tweaks to your grocery list can have a big impact.

The Scope of the Problem

The world needs to eat, obviously. But for the uninitiated, the degree to which we’ve adapted our land for food production is staggering. “Looking at the food system right now, agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the leading driver of tropical deforestation,” Waite says. “As the world population grows, and food demand grows, people are clearing more forest for pasture land. Deforestation, in turn, drives more greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s a cycle that will only get worse if current practices persist. One-fourth of the land on earth is pasture, according to the WRI. “We’re going to need something like 50 to 60 percent more food, but two-thirds less greenhouse gas emissions,” Waite says, in order to reduce agriculture’s impact on rising sea levels. Compounding the problem is the fact that agriculture is responsible for approximately 70 percent of freshwater withdrawn from rivers and aquifers, according to the WRI. So clean drinking water could also become more scarce.

It’s not a new issue.

If this all sounds very doom and gloom, it is. As a species, we’ve encountered this quandary before. In 1798, the English scholar Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that agricultural advancements couldn’t sustain a growing global population and that widespread hunger would keep the population in check. Malthus was partially right. He was wrong to underestimate the effects of agricultural technology—there were no GMOs in the 17th century. But he was right to question the world’s ability to feed a rapidly growing population.

“Yes, there’s still widespread hunger. Something like 800 million people are chronically hungry,” Waite says. “But, the food system does work decently well, and we’re still able to feed everybody each year.” Keeping that system going into the future and reducing chronic hunger, though, is a two-part endeavor. “It’s really a combination of those production-side measures—advancing agricultural technology, best management practices on the farm, and making sure [that] they actually get implemented—and what consumers can do,” Waite says. “Voting with their forks and plates.”

Determining Which Foods Are “Sustainable”

“One solution is making agriculture itself more sustainable. But the trick there is [that] it’s not always obvious if you’re a consumer in a supermarket or a restaurant,” Waite says. “You don’t necessarily know how that food was produced.” Picking a food item for its food sustainability is a lot more complicated than choosing based on price or nutrition. And the highest-impact sources may not be where you think.

Environmentally speaking, food distribution and processing are relatively minor issues. Just 6 percent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and 5 percent of emissions come from processing, according to a 2018 Science study. Produce and seafood items that need to be flown to supermarkets, however, are much bigger environmental offenders. It’s also remarkably difficult to locate the source of store-bought seafood, although less transportation generally means greater food sustainability. ”Buy seasonally, if you can,” Waite says.

There’s also a misconception that non-organic food is less sustainable. “Organic food tends to have a lower yield than conventionally produced food with fertilizer. So it requires more land to produce the same amount of food,” Waite says. However, he notes, organic food doesn’t require fertilizer, which means less local water pollution.

Animal products, especially red meat, tend to be the least sustainable foods. The land, water, and fertilizer required to produce beef dwarf the emissions of poultry, eggs, and dairy to such a degree that quitting beef could be more environmentally beneficial than quitting driving. According to the WRI, reducing your beef consumption by 70 percent means your diet requires 33 percent less agricultural land and emits 35 percent fewer greenhouse gases. Despite its high level of processing, the makers of the meatless Impossible Burger claim that the patty emits approximately 87 percent fewer greenhouse gases than a traditional beef burger.

What You Can Do to Help

You don’t have to go vegan or vegetarian to reduce your dietary impact. Here are three easy ways to become a more sustainable participant in the global food system.

Eat less meat.

“The first thing is shifting [away] from meat, and especially away from beef and lamb, toward plant-based foods,” Waite says. The average American can halve his or her agricultural land use and greenhouse gas emissions by reducing, but not eliminating, meat consumption, Waite says.

Try not to throw food out.

“The second piece would be minimizing food waste,” Waite says. “Especially minimizing waste of the high environmental impact foods. So, never throw meat, cheese, or milk away.” Keep an eye on expiration dates and make use of everything you buy. Additionally, realize that you can usually still consume food past its sell-by and expiration dates.

Order smaller portions at restaurants.

“Portion sizes can be really big, and super-sized portion sizes can lead to food waste if you don’t take the food home,” Waite says. The global obesity epidemic is also a contributor to food unsustainability because we’re literally eating too much. So ask for a doggy bag if you’re not going to finish that monstrous plate of pasta.

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