Environmental impact of our eating habits
Food production is one of the greatest causes of environmental degradation throughout the world. The food we eat is responsible for almost a third of our global carbon footprint. Of that, red meat involves the highest emissions. Emissions-related food activities include farm chemicals, fuel and energy for machinery and irrigation systems, harvesting and processing, transportation and refrigeration. It all adds up.
Particularly, mass-industrial farming of livestock, which increases water pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. It is estimated that the meat industry is responsible for about 9% of total global co2 emissions. Animal waste used as fertilizer also increases microbial activities in the soil. As much as one-quarter of the Earth’s surface is used for grazing and about one-third of arable land is used to produce animal feed. We are running short on space in the climate change race.
Crops and land resources
The use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers and other chemicals used in crop production poses a serious pollution threat. A 2005 study estimated $10 billion in environmental and societal costs (including public health impacts, ecosystem losses, pollinator problems and more) just from reliance on pesticides in the US.
“Sustainable agriculture is regenerative and self-sustaining; it produces its own inputs (fertilizer, feed) and manages its outputs (crop waste, manure) in a closed loop cycle and contributes to soil fertility, clean water systems, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, rather than depleting them.”
Foodprint – Sustainable Agriculture vs. Industrial Agriculture
While opting out for meatless options may be the initial answer for some, a vegetarian diet does not come without its own footprint. In South America, a leading cause of deforestation is soy farming. The soy is mostly used for animal feed and is said to be driving the destruction of Brazil’s Cerrado grasslands. Tofu originating from deforested Brazilian pastures has a carbon footprint twice of that of chicken.
How far does your food travel?
The number of farms dropped from nearly 4.8 million in 1954 to 2 million in 2014. Currently, 70% of US farmland is controlled by just 20% of farms. Farm fields are consolidating and expanding with an ever-increasing reliance on fossil fuels. As farms embrace the monocultural model, this makes the likelihood that your food has been imported at great distances all the more common.
The land is a finite resource and without replenishment, we are driving towards an unsustainable future.
There are estimates of up to $940 billion (USD) per year in global economic losses as a result of food loss and waste in the supply chain. According to the USDA, consumers waste about 21% of the food they purchase. Despite this wastage, one in nine people is undernourished. In the US, nearly 16 million (12.7%) households experienced food insecurity in 2015.
Adding to this is the rise in meal-delivery kits, usually arriving in plastic covered freezer packs. Just one of the meal box delivery companies, Blue Apron, creates up to 190,000 tons of freezer-pack waste annually.
What we can do
The future is on us so please consider some sustainable eating tips that don’t require drastic lifestyle changes:
- Improve our food selection: Field-grown vegetables produce less greenhouse gas
- Support sustainable agriculture: The less chemical additives, the less the risk of runoff pollution.
- Switch to bioplastic food packaging: They are designed to be biodegradable and recyclable
- Use reusable water bottles: According to Crystal Market Research, the growing reusable water bottle market will be worth $9.62bn (USD) by 2023.
- Increase the price of plastic bags: Britain found that adding a charge of just 5p-per-bag drastically cut down overall use by 6.5 billion fewer bags annually.
- Consume less dairy: Non-dairy alternatives now make-up 12% of global milk sales. Almond milk is leading the way but because 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, there are serious considerations involving water drought.
- Lobby the government: Encourage them to increase incentives to support local, independent organic farms.
- Build the market: By paying extra now you are supporting a sustainable future for everybody.
There are no easy answers to global warming, but we can still track our food miles, harness our energy resources, and conserve water supplies. Tiny steps add up to big change.
Meal deliveries for urban consumers
One of the ways that are revolutionizing the food service industry is prepared meals delivered right to your doorstep. The estimates of the home meal kit market as being worth $5billion in 2017, with some predicting that meal kits will gross $10 billion in annual sales by 2020. It’s totally easy with customizable meal kits full of pre-measured ingredients and instructions to prepare an amazing meal. Fresh food, healthier choices, plus the opportunity to get involved with making your own meal.
Each kit contains precisely all that you need. While there’s the benefit of reducing food waste, there is an increase in packaging waste, as each food item is individually wrapped.
How big of a problem is increased packaging waste?
Food waste is a major problem, with the USDA estimating tens of millions of tons of food waste each year. However, the increase in packaging waste creates a dilemma. As each meal kit box is typically packed with insulation, ice packs, plastic bags, wraps, jars, and cardboard boxes. Sometimes the total packaging will outweigh the entrée.
We have to ask: Is the sheer convenience enough to trump the excess packaging waste and transportation emissions? It is a problem we need to solve, as major players are getting in on the meal-kit game. Unilever has invested $9 million in Sun Basket, Nestlé has invested in Freshly, Tyson is collaborating with Tovala, Amazon purchased Whole Foods, and Smithfield’s made a $25 million investment in Chef’d. Small meal kits are becoming a big business.
Sun Basket: meal kits with sustainable packaging
There are companies who are focused on solving the challenge. With a mission of generating zero waste, Sun Basket produces 1.5 to 2 million certified-organic meals each month, using only 100% recyclable or compostable packaging. Some of the highlights include:
- Corrugated shippers made from a blend of recycled and virgin fibers and are curb-side recyclable
- Gel packs from Nordic Ice made from low-density polyethylene and contain a gel made from 98% water and 2% non-GMO cotton
- Pouch film can be taken to recycling centers that accept #4 plastic films
- Plastic bags used to hold ingredients are also low-density polyethylene
- Sun Basket uses curb-side recyclable PET (polyethylene terephthalate) containers
- Their jars, with bases made of polystyrene and lids made of polypropylene, are accepted for recycling in some municipalities
- SunBasket.com links to resources where consumers can research their local recycling information
Companies like California’s Sun Basket are at the threshold of maintaining sustainability in the burgeoning market for meal kits.
The future of food
One surefire way to explore better environmental options for food is through detailed studies, such as the study by the World Economic Forum published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. It explores greenhouse gas emissions for 168 varieties of fresh produce, including vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts, dairy and livestock.
The study answered the question: How much food can you produce in return for 1kg of greenhouse gas? By ranking the life-cycle analysis results into a food pyramid chart, we see that 5.6 kgs of onions will produce the same carbon footprint as 0.04 kgs of beef. They didn’t even include extra carbon-intensive activities like retail and cooking.
The study is valuable for helping people gain a better understanding of the life-cycle impacts associated with the growing, harvesting and processing of food. This knowledge can help people reduce their carbon footprint by making better food choices.
New ways to produce food sustainably
Industrial agriculture which relies on chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and antibiotics is the epitome of unsustainable. This is why sustainable agriculture is a much-needed evolution in farming methods.
While great strides have been made in industrial agriculture, one in nine people are still undernourished worldwide. Despite the fact that global production produces enough for everyone on earth to have 2800 calories a day. It is time to get smarter and fairer with our food distribution and spread the wealth amongst the many, rather than concentrate it in the hands of the few.
As we have previously discussed on The Electric Blog! there are other ways urban agriculture can be utilized for sustainable results. We have discussed how vertical farming can be beneficial for condominium dwellers and how vertical farms can even be possible in some of the coldest places on the planet. The more we make change a priority the sooner that a healthier World becomes a reality.
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