Food and drink on outdoor table

16 things you need to know about food and the environment

Ever wondered how the food we eat affects our environment and our health? Find out here — and get some tips on changing your diet.
  Published:  01 Sep 2017    |      Last updated:  08 Oct 2020    |      4 minute read

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 meeting and sharing, our traditions and rituals, our senses, feelings and memories. It opens doors to different experiences and cultures. And it's becoming a lot clearer how our diets affect the environment.

Much of the food we eat, and how it gets to our tables, has changed radically from 50 years ago. While people in some parts of the world suffer from obesity, others don't have enough to eat. Yet crops are converted into biofuels that feed cars instead of people, while millions of tonnes of food are wasted.

The global food system is broken. It’s harming our planet and our health, so it's up to us to change it.

Discover easy ways to reduce your environmental impact, from food to fashion.

What's wrong with our food?

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 feed livestock rather than people, which is really inefficient. And meat consumption is predicted to go up – the world is predicted to be eating 76% more meat globally by 2050 [PDF]than it was in 2005.

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

Our meaty and junk-heavy diets are linked to heart disease, strokes and some cancers. But shifting to less 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

That's according to the UN Food and Agriculture Association. So a great way to start tackling climate breakdown is to reduce the amount of meat and dairy you eat – good for the planet and good for your health.

4. If everyone in the world switched to the World Health Organisation’s healthy daily diet, we'd avoid 15 gigatonnes of GHG emissions by 2050

That’s about a third of all global GHGs emitted annually. Tackling climate breakdown is also essential for global food security – ensuring the world can produce enough food. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, desertification and increased pressure from pests and disease caused by climate breakdown all threaten our ability to feed ourselves.

5. Our meat-heavy diets are ruining people's lives in poorer countries

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 and biofuels, and its rapid expansion in Paraguay is causing deforestation, water pollution from pesticides and other serious problems. Small farmers are being forced off their land, unable to grow food for their families and communities.

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

Our taste for fish has been emptying the seas. 90% of the world’s fish stocks are in danger, and considered either fully exploited, over exploited or depleted. Fish like wild sea bass are disappearing from the seas – a tragedy not only for marine wildlife 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 5 animal species

The lack of diversity in our food supply makes it much more vulnerable to climate breakdown, pests and diseases. And it means there's less space and variety for our bee species and other wildlife.

Change what you buy and eat

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

Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, Jack Monroe and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are just a few of the growing number of top cooks in the UK moving away from traditional meat-heavy menus. With chefs leading the way and a wide range of cultures on our restaurant scene, we're spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out. You can find meat-free dishes on nearly every menu in the country.

9. Eat less, and better, meat and dairy

You don’t have to wave goodbye to meat and dairy 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.

10. Scientists are developing different ways of producing food

The first and much-hyped lab burger – grown using stem cells from cattle – was created in 2013. Such “artificial” meat could 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 it in the supermarket just yet.

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

With flexitarian diets on the rise, supermarkets and restaurants are falling over themselves to develop the most exciting plant-based ranges. From Greggs' vegan sausage rolls to Ikea's veggie twist on its iconic meatballs, there's plenty of choice.

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, and we think its tastier.

14. MSC and ASC certification applies to seafood from sustainable sources

The Marine Stewardship Council ensures certified fisheries are not over-fished and producers look after the marine environment. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council does the same for farmed seafood.

15. RSPCA-assured labels guarantee higher animal welfare standards

Certification applies to animals raised to welfare standards approved by the RSPCA. This is the minimum standard Friends of the Earth recommends for meat and dairy. Unfortunately, we don't think Red Tractor assurance is good enough.

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

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