Environmental impact of the food system

The last climate café was on the impact our food choices have on the environment, which is right up my alley. I was looking forward to these talks very much and I don’t think I was the only one because it was our busiest climate café ever with more than 120 people turning up on the night. Here are my notes.

Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen
Food choices and how consumerism can influence the carbon footprint.

Managing demand for livestock products is essential for future food security. By 2050 we can expect to need to feed around 9-10 billion people. This will level off to around 12 billion by 2100. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.  In developing countries we have a rising middle class and with increases in wealth comes increases in meat and milk consumption, both of which put more pressure on the food system. In the next 50 years we’re going to need to produce more food in the same land area than we’ve ever produced in the whole of human history. Increasing production by 10% or 20% is not going to be enough. This will be hugely challenging. It’s not like we’re currently doing a good job of this with some 800 million people going hungry.

One thing is certain: we cannot all eat a western diet because there’s not enough land. We must change our diets if we’re to produce enough food and make sure everyone has access to it – this is about food security. Furthermore, if we’re serious about tackling climate change then we need to address demand for animal products. This has two components: minimising waste and dietary change. In developed countries around 30% of purchased food products goes to landfill. This could potentially be reduced by 50%. Dietary change can also have a large impact on reducing our carbon footprint because meat products have a much higher impact than plants. There’s a 100-fold difference between eating ruminant beef compared with vegetables in terms of the CO2 emissions they produce. In other words, it’s 100 times better to eat a vegetable burger than a beef burger.

Currently 30% of all crops grown are fed to animals. If we weren’t feeding so many animals we’d free up land for other things like reforestation. Animals are not particularly efficient at converting protein from plants into energy. We’re about 10% efficient and so it makes little sense to filter plants we can eat through an animal that’s only 10% efficient and then eating the animal. We need to shift consumption from animals to the food we’re feeding those animals. Meat is a luxury consumption that we don’t need.

This doesn’t mean we all have to go completely vegan tomorrow. It’s not a binary choice of all or nothing. But we need to shift away from a diet centred on animal products to one that is more balanced and healthy. Doing so will give us benefits in triplicate: it will improve the health of the population, reduce the risks associated with climate change, and improve food security. The health benefits are a reduced incidence of diabetes and heart disease as well as a lower risk of some cancers. The challenge is how to incentivise plant-based diets so we can realise these benefits. We could tax the foods that put more pressure on the environment, the public health system, and food security.


Dr Stephen Whybrow, University of Aberdeen
Is eating less meat the answer?

We know we need to reduce our emissions by changing the foods we eat but what would happen if we all started reducing our meat consumption? The Scottish diet is already notoriously bad with too much sugar and fat and not enough fibre. How would switching to a plant-based diet impact our health and the micronutrients we need? Sugar and oils are high in energy but not much else.

The question is, how would meat-eaters change what they eat if plant-based diets were incentivised? If meat-eaters switched from lean chicken and veggies to macaroni cheese then this is not great for their health. One study found that 25% of meat-eaters would increase their dairy consumption if they reduced meat consumption and this is going to have only minimal benefits for the environment because of the high environmental impact of dairy farming. There’s also the question of whether people will compensate for no-meat days by eating more meat on other days.

In terms of nutritional requirements, will we get enough protein if we reduce our meat consumption? Yes, we eat way too much protein right now. What about iron? Iron absorption from plants is not as high as from meat. However the amount we absorb also depends on how much we have in our body. If our iron stores are low then we’ll absorb more. For most people iron is not going to be a problem. Of greater concern is B12 which comes exclusively from animal products. Folic acid also masks problems associated with B12 deficiency. What options are there? We could issue supplements to everyone or fortify foods.

Is eating less meat the answer? No, it’s only part of the answer. We also need to consider nutritional issues.


Scott Heron from RGU
Plastic: The Naked Truth

Inspired by a “naked onion” (an onion wrapped in plastic), Scott and his partner, Pam, decided to challenge themselves to go plastic-free for 30 days. Plastic packaging is a huge problem. Currently 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into the oceans every year. What happens to it? It will not decompose on human time scales so it will be there for a very long time. There is also the issue of micro-plastics which are ingested by plankton and end up cascading up the food chain.

How did Scott manage for the 30 days? He decided that everything they already had in the food cupboard could stay but all purchased things for the 30 days had to be plastic-free. It was hard to buy fruit and vegetables without plastic packaging. There’s no green grocer in Aberdeen. He tried to get meat and fish from the deli counters at the supermarket – at the meat counter they were happy for him to use his own container but this was not possible at the fish counter. He was told it was a health and safety risk. Scott was eventually able to source fish from the local fishmongers.

Part-way through the challenge Scott ran out of salt and went to a beach north of Aberdeen, collected some sea water, then boiled off the water to make his own. Two things that he found surprisingly difficult to buy without plastic packaging were pasta and coffee. He eventually found pasta in a cardboard box but there was a tiny bit of plastic in a window on the box.

At the end of the 30 days Scott found his diet had improved considerably and he was eating far less sugar. He’s also much more aware of how pervasive plastics are.

Scott and Pam are starting another plastic-free challenge on the 14th February which is in two days! If you want to join them head over to the Facebook page.

 

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