Food and environment: how to follow a sustainable diet?
Our food has a cost: and I don’t just mean the immediate one we pay at the checkout, often the only one we consider. There is a much greater cost, which concerns the environment and resources, which we are little aware of but which becomes decisive if we look to the future for a moment, a strenuous but necessary exercise. Wise food choices and environmental sustainability should go hand in hand: few steps are needed to make this possible.
For FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a diet that guarantees maximum environmental sustainability must reduce the impact on the environment. It must be adequate from a nutritional point of view while at the same time remaining economically sustainable, easily accessible, and culturally acceptable. Ambitious goals if we consider that by 2050 the total population of the planet will exceed nine billion, most of them in Asia and Africa. What can we do to achieve FAO’s goal in a world where resources are finite, climate change is heavily modifying environmental conditions, and populations are growing rapidly, with similarly growing food needs?
Food production and environmental sustainability
Food production costs, especially in environmental terms. Agriculture and breeding involve the production of large quantities of greenhouse gases and the use of a large part of the available water resources. To cultivate, you need to have land available, which means deforesting, with consequent loss of biodiversity. Agriculture and farming involve pollution, not only for production but also for the packaging, transport, and sale of finished products.
These are complex supply chains that have many critical points but also great opportunities for optimization. Ensuring the maximum environmental sustainability of each phase of these processes while reducing losses and waste is essential to satisfy a continuously growing demand for cheap and nutritious food, minimizing the impact on an environment already severely tested by the action of man.
Diet and environmental sustainability
We live in a world full of contradictions, seven billion human beings on a planet that offers limited resources. One billion people still suffer from hunger and risk dying from food shortages. At the same time, one billion and two hundred million are obese or overweight, besieged by diseases caused by excessive consumption. Changing our diet is not only right but necessary if we want to live healthily, in a less polluted world, respecting the environment, guaranteeing everyone an adequate diet.
A sustainable diet is possible without upsetting one’s habits and embracing food cultures that are too distant from one’s own. The three basic principles are simple:
- consume less;
- waste less;
- choose foods whose production has a reduced environmental impact.
Everything can be declined in practice by following a few easy-to-implement indications:
Increase your consumption of vegetables and fruits
Fruits and vegetables should be the pillars of a healthy diet, and in most cases, their production and marketing have a reduced environmental impact. There are obvious exceptions: these are easily perishable fruits and vegetables, which require constant refrigeration; of products linked to specific geographical areas and marketed on the other side of the world with a significant waste of resources; of vegetables grown in greenhouses.
Often the best choice is to consume locally grown foods during the season they are available. However, that a product is km 0, as they say, does not mean that it is automatically more respectful of the environment. In some cases, local products require cultivation and conservation techniques that make them less advantageous than similar products obtained in other areas, despite the transport costs.
Reduce the consumption of products of animal origin
Ensuring an adequate dose of protein every day has always been difficult and represents one of the toughest challenges for the future. Generally speaking, the production of proteins of animal origin requires more resources than those necessary to obtain a similar quantity of proteins of vegetable origin.
In the Western world, we are large meat consumers, and our habits are making their way even in emerging countries. To reduce the diet’s environmental impact, it would be appropriate to reduce the consumption of animal products and increase that of plant products. This does not mean becoming vegetarian or even vegan but simply reducing the consumption of meat, both in quantity and frequency, perhaps increasing the space dedicated to the consumption of legumes with an excellent nutritional profile, such as lentils and chickpeas, alternating and varying the type as much as possible of food consumed.
Among the products of animal origin, we also find milk and dairy products which, despite the many pseudoscientific nonsenses that continue to circulate, are an excellent source of protein and calcium. Also, in this case, consumption should be moderate, one or two servings a day, including milk, fermented products such as yogurt and kefir, and cheeses, to be consumed less frequently.
The consumption of fish also has a significant impact on the environment, and many species are at risk, with excessively exploited and continuously decreasing reserves. The situation is critical for cod, salmon, some species of tuna, plaice, swordfish. Consuming fish is important for our health, but our preferences should be towards small, rapidly reproducing, and currently, under-exploited species, such as anchovies, for example, which some belief to be the perfect protein. Fish also have a seasonality, which should be followed, paying attention to choosing specimens above a specific size to avoid decimating the young population, which guarantees the constant restoration of fishing reserves.
Consume less, reduce waste
With a large part of the population of western countries obese or overweight, it is clear that the first step to take is simply to reduce consumption, reducing the consumption of foods rich in calories but poor in nutrients, avoiding the continuous use of snacks, paying more attention to the portions we buy, cook and eat. In addition to the environmental damage, we would also reduce the incidence of obesity and overweight, the main risk factors for many diseases.
Excessive consumption is accompanied by enormous waste: it is estimated that in Europe, every year, over 88 million tons of food end up in waste. Some of this goes away during manufacturing, transportation, and marketing, but at least half is lost in our homes. The amount of carbon dioxide needed to produce what we throw each year ranks third, behind the total emissions of China and the United States.
Most food waste comes from cereals, tubers, and fruit, while the largest contribution to CO2 emissions comes from cereals and animal products.
There is significant room for improvement possible along the entire supply chain. With a bit of attention and planning, we can help make a difference even in our homes, for example, by buying fresh, unpackaged products, with net savings on the materials and processes required for packaging and sale. Or by reducing the very high consumption of mineral waters, which involves very high costs for transport, packaging, and sale.
Environmental sustainability and nutrition: a little reflection
Ensuring nutritious food for everyone while fully respecting the environment is one of the biggest challenges for the future. It is obvious that large-scale policies that aim at optimizing the use of resources with the reduction of waste will have the greatest impact.
Improving productivity is key to ensuring better yields with the least possible land and resource commitment. To do this, we must resort to those technologies that at all levels allow us to optimize processes, operating above all in developing countries and in those areas where climate change could lead to a collapse of existing production. New varieties, targeted use of the soil, fight against diseases with increasingly specific tools: priority objectives if we want to produce more while respecting the environment.
Logistics and distribution also play an important role and could make it possible both to reduce CO2 emissions related to transport and to contain waste due to the deterioration of food after harvest and along the distribution chain.
And then there is us, those who consume food, those who, with their choices, can help guide the market, sending strong signals to legislators, producers, merchants.
The issue of environmental sustainability is often approached simplistically, identifying one or more problematic foods to be eliminated – obviously chosen based on one’s food belief – or by longing for a mythological past in which the good earth nourishes its respectful children with abundant crops. The problem is instead complex, and in order to be solved, it requires strategies that address the many critical points of production, distribution, and consumption. Turning our gaze to the past, hoping for more or less happy decreases or a return to techniques that could not guarantee a decent meal to a population much lower than the current one is at least naive. Instead, the road passes through innovation and the application of new technologies in the field, setting specific and ambitious objectives to ensure at the same time an improvement in the quality of life for the entire world population and the utmost respect for this beautiful planet that we find ourselves to inhabit.
We start first, paying attention to how much and what we consume. It is not a trivial matter.