Your diet: Part of the Solution or the Problem?

Reduce your impact – eat responsibly!

The WWF International recently published its annual Living Planet Report for 2020. It provides an overview of where we are at in the pursuit of preserving our natural world and the ecosystems on which we depend. All this talking about the planet’s ecosystem, biodiversity loss, extinction etc. How does it translate to your everyday life? What does it have to do with me?, you might wonder. It actually has a lot do to with you, me and us. We can do our share and the precondition for it is to understand the interconnectedness of our demands and the process which supplies it to us. 

The basics: Knowing where to start from

The baseline level for comparing the increase of global average temperature is the so often mentioned pre-industrial time. It refers to the second wave of industrialisation between 1850 and 1900 which significantly transformed human life globally. According to the IPCC, it is the earliest period of an global observation scope and an approximation of average temperature at this time. It serves as a starting point where global temperature was balanced. Until 2017, that temperature had risen up to 1.0°C above pre-industrial levels. If we continue the ‘business-as-usual’, we will stimulate a further increase of 0.2°C in every decade.

Another important reference point is the year 1970 in which humanity’s demand surpassed the planet’s ability to regenerate, its so-called biocapacity, for the first time. In addition, it serves as a baseline year to determine the Living Planet Index (LPI), the WWF’s ‘warning indicator on the health of nature’. It equals a reference point to illustrate the impact of human activities on our planet’s ecosystem. 

Living off our planet: Demand > supply

These human activities go back to extremely high production and consumption levels and the increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other pollutants that come with it. Thanks to new technologies and better land management processes, global biocapacity has improved by about 28% in the past 60 years. But do not rejoice to soon! In the same time, humanity’s demand and footprint has increased by 173%. Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have managed to increase our impact on the planet by a 100-fold! Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Humanity’s influence on the decline of nature is so great that […] we are entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

WWF – Living Planet Report 2020

At the end of the equation our needs currently require 1,56 Earth’s in order to be met. As mentioned already, the year 1970 was the first time we surpassed our planet’s capacities to recover before the end of the year. Since then, the so-called Earth Overshoot day has moved more and more towards the summer months. In 2020, it was reached on the 22nd of August.  

However, 2020 has been a particular year with the corona pandemic and the resulting economic lockdown having led to a reduction in resource consumption in most countries. Thus, let us rather look at the Overshoot day of 2019 which will give us a more adequate picture. Footprint improvements due to Covid-19 moved the Overshoot Day by three weeks when in 2019 it was reached on the 29th of July 2019 – 155 days too early

Development: The gains

Since 1970, the total global population has doubled, half of which living in cities and urban centres now. In the same time period the global gross domestic product (GDP) – the market value of all the produced goods and services, measured per year and indicated in a currency such as the Euro or the US Dollar  – quadrupled. Global trade has exploded, too with the value of export having risen 200-fold (in developed countries even 1200-fold). Besides other aspects, this has brought incredible gains to mankind such as better health, wealth, living standards and well-being. But is has come at a great cost as well. 

Biodiversity: The losses

The WWF report radically outlines the huge costs that humans have to bare. Natural resources and terrestrial and marine species have been overexploited until extinction or are at high risk thereof. Large territories of (rain)forests, grasslands, wetlands and other important ecosystems such as our oceans have been irreversibly destroyed and altered.

This translates into a loss of global biodiversity of 68%, in the tropical sub regions of the Americas even by 94% – that is of mammals, birds and insects, amphibians, reptiles and fish not yet including the vast amount of plants or barren soil. 

Why should this matter to us? Frankly speaking, our life on Earth depends on it!

We are destroying our planet at such an unprecedented rate and speed that our future well-being, health and security are at risk. We depend on the well-being of our planet. 

But hang on a minute, hasn’t she mentioned that our well-being has increased?

Let’s talk about food then, shall we?

The most significant driver of terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss has been the change of how we use our land including the associated degradation of these areas. This is primarily in order to create agricultural systems. (Rain)forests, grasslands and mangroves have been converted in order to supply us with food. Much of the oceans have been overfished for the same reason.

Remember the human activities eating up the earth’s supply capacity? Here, the production of food accounts for the largest share (29%) of greenhouse gas emissions followed by housing (25%) and personal transportation or goods and services (each having a share between 14 – 17%). These emissions caused by production, in return, add further stress to our land systems which stimulates a negative spiral downwards. 

Where and how we produce food is one of the biggest human-caused threats to nature and our ecosystems, making the transformation of our global food system more important than ever.

WWF – Living Planet Report 2020

The world’s population has grown exponentially which is also true for the income levels in some countries. And so has the demand and the level of consumption, too. And where there is demand, there will be supply to meet it which has led to a growth of production level and scope. At the end of the equation are the many forests and other back then ‘untouched’ human territories that had to give way to crop, livestock and the like (you name it!). 

I do not want to go much into detail here of how our food is produced (i.e. animal treatment for mass production) as it is very painful and shocking to find out under which conditions things are done in some (close) parts of the world. There are plenty of documentaries or TED talks freely available on various online streaming platforms. 

In this article, I want to focus on the bigger picture of how your diet is linked to the conservation – or destruction – of our natural world.

Food supplies are tightening everywhere and land is becoming the most sought-after commodity as the world shifts from an age of food abundance to one of scarcity.

European Comission

The problem(s)

1. Deforestation

So far, agriculture has been responsible for 80% of the world’s deforestation. Because forests function as a major natural carbon storage sink, deforestation hence leads to an essential release of carbon dioxide (CO2) together with methane (CH4) – 30 times more powerful than CO2 – and nitrous oxide. The consequence, as you know already, is an increase in total average temperature which further fuels the vicious circle called climate change.  

If global deforestation stopped and we were to reforest 350 million hectares of destroyed land, which is almost the amount of forest that has been lost since the year 2000, we would reduce our emissions by at least 25% and move the date of the Overshoot Day by 8 days.

In the last 18 years, 3.6 million km2 – an area a little bigger than the size of India – of Amazonas rainforest has been cleared. 20% of the ‘lungs of our Earth’ has been destroyed so far. Large areas are mainly used to raise cattle for food production or farm soya. As an example, Brazil has the largest livestock of cattle of the world. Its beef production has increased by 633% over the last 50 years. In 2016, that were 209 million cattle transformed into 9.5 billion tons of beef! Once ready, the beef is exported by airfreight to Europe, the USA and other parts of the world. 

Of course, animals are also raised for dairy product farming in order to produce milk, cheese etc. and eggs which should not be neglected either. In terms of impact though, meat production clearly wins. 

If we reduced our global consumption of meat by 50% and replaced it by a vegetarian diet, the Earth Overshoot Day would move by 17 days.

2. Freshwater use: Our food’s water footprint

Agriculture also uses up to 70% of the world’s freshwater. Here, the production of meat in general requires 45 times more water than vegetables and fruits or grains and seeds. It is not so much the water which the animals drink (2%) but rather the water necessary to grow the crops that feed them, which adds up to 98% of total water demand in agriculture.

The Water footprint network offers detailed information about how much water is used for the production of any kind of food. Here are some facts to give you a general idea. The numbers display the (global) average amount of water required for 1 kg of the product, measured in litres. This does of course vary greatlydepending on where in the world and how it is produced. 

Hidden consumed water per product (1kg – liters) – own design

The following video of the UNESCO explains very well where and how much water a person of a typical household in a developed country is consuming per day, taking into account the complex interdependencies. Only 6% of consumed water is actually conscious! Our food makes up 94% of ‘virtual water’ that we are not aware of but which has the strongest impact. 

Where is Water? – The Water Rooms #2 – A film by UNESCO WWAP. Produced and animated by Steve Cutts.

3. Transportation & Waste: Leave no food behind

2/3 of the total emissions related to food production (reminder: 29%) is generated by transporting food from country A (country of production) to country B (country of consumption), also described as ‘food miles’. Somehow we are able to understand these emissions as it is clear to us that Spanish avocadoes account for less food miles than those from Peru. However, when it comes to the waste of global total food produced, it is harder to grasp the impact it has on our planet.

Food loss and waste have a larger share than you might think. The WWF estimates that on average, 1/3 of the food produced to feed humanity is lost or wasted – that is 1.3 billion tonnes every year! The majority of it is spilled across the supply chain due to poor storage, processing, cooling or transportation. The remaining share is wasted by retailers, restaurants and consumers. It is the latter that we, the consumers, have direct power over. They sum up for 9% of CO2 emissions associated with food. 

If we reduced food waste by 50%, we would move the Overshoot Day by 13 days

Half of the Earth’s biocapacity is used to feed us Earth Overshoot Day 2020

The solution(s)

1. Sustainable agroecological practices

We need to transform current agricultural and fishing practices to ones that focus on natural and regenerative production methods (no fertilisers, chemicals nor pesticides) and a better land and biodiversity management respecting its capacities (no overexploitation). Altogether, this would leave the land and ocean in use healthy and fertile and diminish risks of degradation. And it would secure future food supply for a growing human population. 

2. Eat responsibly

First of all, we need to consume less food which requires a larger amount of natural resources for its production (‘resource-intensive food’), for example land or freshwater. If you cannot entirely cut meat or dairy products that is okay but reducing them is a path we eventually have to go. And the products that you consume then, you have to ‘demand’ them to be produced sustainably (see above). How do we do that? By not buying at all or buying less of the pesticide-party options.

If we adapt our consumption to low resource-intensive food with low, sustainable material and energy demand it creates a strong message that we, the consumers, do mean it to stay beneath 1.5°C. 

3. Accessibility

The price is the main driver for any sort of consumption, also food. If you can afford more, you buy more. This is a general phenomenon. The main reason to not buy at a bio market are the expected higher prices. It is what causes the great divide within the population. But ‘sustainable food’ should not hold a cult status anymore. It should be affordable and accessible to everyone (transforming the ‘best case’ to a ‘real case’ scenario).   

4. Knowledge & Evaluation

Seasonal and regional – Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

And here comes the tricky part. There is not one single ‘right’ way to do it and it takes the effort of learning and evaluation to decide for the ‘better choice’. Not relying on what used to be a ‘good product’ or just simply well-marketed, question it and your reasoning and also learn about the production or transportation methods. Very often, simply asking about it at the food market (or supermarket) will already provide you with a lot of insights. Then, we should not forget that buying pesticide-free vegetables cultured overseas and transported via airfreight carries a large ecological footprint with it although it does signal pro-agroecologicalproduction. 

As a rule of thumb: Seasonal and regional are forever the ‘better choice’.

The same assessment process applies to the use of plastic for the distribution of food. Plastic is another major topic that I might address in a future article. Luckily, the awareness of plastic waste has increased in the last decade. You can find plenty of great content about it on the internet or in podcasts about Zero waste, for example.

5. Reduce overall consumption

All in all, the key towards a future living in harmony with our natural world is: consume less! In the interview with artist and designer Dunja Karabaic I have come across the JOMO effect, the Joy Of Missing Out. Try it out and make it your new mantra. You can also save food that does not meet the aesthetics to be sold under normal conditions. There are plenty of initiatives and free apps that make it very easy for us. You do not only pay less (accessibility!) but you will also feel good about it.

Do whatever you can (as long as you do it!).

It is not about doing everything right, you simply won’t manage to do so and, what’s even worse, get frustrated along the way only to return to what you know aka old consumption habits. The key is to feel that you are heading towards the right direction, get the momentum going, keep adding new behaviours and inspire others to do the same.

70% is the new perfect.

Alexandra Zykunov

All numbers on the Earth Overshoot Day are from its website

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