How food choices can help the planet
The food choices we make, the way we eat and the world’s food production systems all have an enormous impact on the climate and environment, with food production contributing more than 37 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Researchers from the University of Sydney and Curtin University have this week published a new book, Food in a Planetary Emergency, which analyses problems in food production and consumption at global, industry and individual levels. It also explores new ways that we can eat to help curb emissions and protect critical habitats from being cleared. The authors argue that flexitarian diets (comprising predominantly of plant-based foods but not cutting out any food group entirely) would drastically reduce greenhouse emissions.
“Greenhouse gas emissions are growing, with the global population set to reach 8.5 billion by 2030,” says the book’s co-author Dr Diana Bogueva. “This means the production and farming of food and agriculture systems is putting enormous strain on the environment through loss of biodiversity, deforestation, loss of savannahs, plastic pollution, exhaustion of the planet’s soils, freshwater overuse and species’ exploitation.
“Climate change is being supercharged by humankind. Whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, our food choices are a major contributor to the current environmental emergency. But we can make significant changes today that can lessen our impact.”
An agenda of change
The book builds upon hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and meta-analyses on the link between food and environment. It sets an agenda of change needed in areas ranging from food waste and packaging to meat consumption, circular agriculture and flexitarianism.
The authors have conducted research on meat consumption and its impact on biodiversity and human health. “There is no doubt that the increase in meat consumption globally, in particular, is leading to huge biodiversity loss and land clearing,” Dr Bogueva says. “However, its impacts are far-reaching, including on human health, causing both obesity in the developed world and malnutrition in the developing world.”
In 2020, WWF found that agriculture practices led to a reduction in global wildlife of 68 percent between 1970 and 2016. Emissions from fishing are also on the rise, with commercial trawling being particularly detrimental to marine environments.
Will Gen Z transform the world’s food choices?
The changing food attitudes of Generation Z – individuals born between 1995 and 2010 – have also formed a significant part of the authors’ research. Inspired by global activists like Greta Thunberg, Generation Z has led a wave of action through climate strikes, demanding urgent action from governments and making conscious food choices.
“They are very environmentally and socially motivated,” Dr Bogueva says. “Our previous research found that a large number of Gen Z opt for vegetarianism and veganism for ethical reasons, to preserve the dignity of animals. Other studies have found they are actively reducing their meat consumption in places like the US and the UK.”
Going plant-based a simple but powerful choice
The authors believe significant action can be taken to curb emissions and decrease food’s impact on the environment. They urge consumers to include more traditional plant-based choices in their diets, such as vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and fruits.
“Not only is this the best response in the current environment and climate emergency, it’s also much better for our health,” says co-author Professor Marinova. “It will diminish the current exploitative ways of food production and give the planet a chance to regenerate.
“Better diets are those that are healthy and come from food systems which allow the natural environment to continue to produce food and regenerate.”
Food choices that can help the planet
Switching to flexitarianism
According to the researchers, flexitarian habits – a reduction in meat, livestock and animal-derived products – are gradually being adopted by Western societies in response to the climate emergency. They found there’s overwhelming evidence that a Western style of meat-rich diet is the worst choice in a planetary emergency.
Consuming beans, pulses and alternative proteins
While animal-based proteins are a good and easy source of essential amino acids, so are complete proteins like soya, tempeh, tofu, buckwheat, chia, quinoa, industrial hemp and chickpeas. Insects, which have played a large role in Chinese cuisine for 3000 years, also provide a nutritious source of protein.
Reducing food waste
World Resources Institute estimates that almost a quarter of all food produced is wasted, with food waste particularly high in North America and Oceania. According to other sources, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter.
Reducing food packaging and single use plastics
According to Plastics Europe, 368 million tonnes of plastic were produced in 2019. This is largely represented in food packaging. Despite a move towards recycling, the majority of these plastics end up in landfill.
Returning to circular agriculture practices
Circular agriculture was widespread before the introduction of fertilisers, involving the return of nutrients derived from organic waste to the soil. Modern practices have led to reduced soil fertility, ultimately impacting the quality of food we eat.
Supporting future generations through considered food choices
In a recent study by Professor Marinova and Dr Bogueva, Gen Z participants were interviewed on their attitudes to meat and protein alternatives. Sixty percent expressed concern about the impacts of traditional livestock farming on the natural environment.
About the authors
Dr Diana Bogueva is an award-winning interdisciplinary researcher focused on consumer behaviour change, alternative proteins, future novel food processing technologies and food sustainability. She is the Manager of the University of Sydney Centre for Advanced Food Engineering and is a Research Fellow at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute.
Professor Dora Marinova is an expert in sustainability at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute. Her area of research covers sustainability, innovation and sustainometrics.