16 things you need to know about food and the environment

01 Sep 2017
Ever wondered how the food we eat affects our environment and our health? Find out here — and get some tips on changing your diet.

Food plays a central role in all our lives. We need to eat to survive, but what, how and when we eat is based on more than just staying alive. It’s about our traditions and rituals, our senses, feelings and memories. It opens doors to different experiences and cultures. And it's become more and more clear how much our diets affect the environment.

Much of the food we eat, and how it gets to our tables, is almost unrecognisable from 50 years ago. While people in some parts of the world do not have enough to eat, others suffer from obesity. Millions of tonnes of food are wasted and crops are converted into biofuels to feed cars instead of people.

The global food system is broken. It’s harming our planet and our health, and something needs to change.

The problems with the food we eat

1. Meat and dairy production takes up a whopping three quarters of all the available agricultural land in the world

One third of that land is used to grow animal feed such as soy — that’s an awful lot of land being used to inefficiently feed animals rather than directly feed people. And meat consumption is predicted to go up. The world is expected to be eating 76% more meat globally by 2050 [PDF] than it did in 2005.

2. The way we eat is having a serious effect on our health

Our meat and junk-heavy diets are linked to heart disease, strokes and certain types of cancer. Shifting to lower-meat and better diets in the UK could prevent an estimated 45,000 early deaths each year, and save the NHS more than £1.2 billion annually.

3. Producing livestock for human consumption contributes 14.5% of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

So if we’re going to tackle climate change, we need to reduce the amount of meat and dairy we eat.

4. If all of us in the UK switched to the World Health Organisation’s healthy daily diet, we'd save 15 gigatonnes of GHG emissions by 2050

That’s around a third of the entirety of global GHGs emitted in 2011. Tackling climate change is also incredibly important for making sure the world is able to produce enough food – this is known as global food security. Extreme weather caused by climate change, rising sea levels, desertification and increased pressure from pests and disease, all threaten our ability to feed ourselves.

5. Meat-heavy diets are ruining people's lives in poorer countries thousands of miles away

Take Paraguay, where rural communities are increasingly surrounded by massive fields of soy – much of it genetically modified. Europe is the biggest importer of soymeal. Soy is mainly used in animal feed as well as biofuels, and its rapid expansion in Paraguay is causing deforestation and other serious problems like water pollution from pesticides. Small farmers are also being forced off their land, unable to grow food for their families and communities.

6. It’s not just meat and dairy that’s the problem

Our taste for fish has been stripping the seas. More than 70% of the world’s fish stocks are over- or fully exploited. Fish like tuna are disappearing from oceans – a tragedy not only for marine life but for the millions of people who rely on small-scale fishing for food and jobs.

7. Modern farming methods mean 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species

This lack of diversity in our food supply makes it much more vulnerable to climate change, pests and diseases. And it means there is less space for our bees and other wildlife.

Change what you buy and eat

8. Chefs and foodies are making veggies pride of place on the plate

Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, Jack Monroe and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are part of a growing number of top chefs moving away from traditional meat-heavy menus. And with chefs leading the way, when it comes to eating out, we Brits are miles ahead of the curve. You can find meat-free dishes on nearly every menu in the country.

9. We've all got to eat less, and better, meat and dairy

You don’t have to entirely drop meat and dairy from the shopping list for a planet-friendly diet. Start by reducing the amount you eat, making sure that what you’re eating is the best quality you can afford. Replace meat with plant proteins like beans, nuts and pulses, or meaty mushrooms.

take the Pledge to Eat Better

10. Scientists are developing different ways of producing food

The first and much-hyped lab burger – grown using stem cells from cattle – was eaten in 2013. Such “test-tube” meat could in theory be produced with less damage to the environment. But with the technology in the early stages, plus high costs and ethical issues to overcome, don’t expect them in the supermarket just yet.

11. We’re constantly experimenting with food outside of the lab as well

The search for more sustainable alternatives is pushing the boundaries of what ends up on our plates – from crickets on the menu at popular Mexican chain Wahacca, to the increasingly popular seaweed beers and snacks.

What do the labels mean?

12. Organic is the gold standard

Organic farmers don’t use chemical fertilisers or pesticides, and farm using high quality animal welfare practices. Organic standards are set out in law and farmers receive accreditation from The Soil Association or other certifying bodies.

13. Free-range is an animal welfare label for chicken and eggs, recognised in law

It means chickens have spent at least part of their lives outside. Free-range chicken typically contains less fat than intensively reared chicken, as well as being tastier.

14. MSC certified applies to seafood from sustainable sources

It is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. It means producers don’t overfish and do look after the marine environment.

15. RSPCA-assured labels guarantee higher animal welfare standards

Certification applies to animals raised to welfare standards approved by the RSPCA.

16. Fair trade labels can be found on anything from bananas and chocolate to t-shirts and gold

Fair trade sets minimum ethical standards. It means farmers are paid a fair price for their goods, which are made under decent working conditions.

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