A Global Village
Issue 6 » Planet

What Will Be on Your Plate in 2050?

Katherine Portilla, Imperial College London

You may have heard the term ‘carbon footprint’, but do you know your ‘food footprint’? Food consumption accounts for 30% of carbon emissions in the UK1. This beefy figure includes growing, producing, and importing all of our grub, not forgetting emissions resulting from deforestation and land-use. What steps can we take as individuals to mitigate these issues?

There is a need to be more aware of the consequences of what and how we eat. Simple changes in diet, produce selection and storage will make a difference1. On a broader scale, increasing farming productivity and efficiency are equally important. By acknowledging and acting on these issues now, we are determining the future ability of our planet to feed our children, and their children to come.

How can we reduce the impact of the food we consume? The link between food consumption and the environment is far from subtle. There are various ways to quantitatively determine the impact of food on the environment, where energy, transport, ecology and water must all be considered. A generalised quantitative measure of this impact is known as a ‘footprint’.

A carbon footprint refers to the emissions from a product, using a life cycle analysis from farm to fork. Transport is an important consideration for this measure. A similar calculation may be carried out on the total amount of water that is required to produce a food. An ecological footprint is a measure of the use of bio-productive space in hectares. An understanding of these footprints will enable us to make more informed decisions about what we eat, and how we shop and store food.

Muddled Footprints
The carbon footprint accounts for how food is grown, manufactured and transported. It is measured in terms of volume of carbon dioxide emissions. Food transport is largely linked to the globalisation of trade and the increase in consumption of processed and packaged foods. Studies2 show that processed food tend to be more resource-intensive to produce.

What’s healthy
for the planet is
generally healthy
for people too

Rising incomes, urbanisation, an increasing need for convenience in food preparation, and the demand for variety have promoted the role of food-processing industries, which has also increased the importance of packaging. In addition, globalisation and decreasing transport costs have led to an increase in food transportation around the world, involving different modes of transport. Although the life span of perishable products has been prolonged, in response to this increase in distance from sites of production to where food is marketed, a significant amount of food is still thrown away before it is even sold. This is partly due to an increasing concern about food safety and demand for high quality fresh produce. Thus, produce is often discarded even though it is still perfectly fit for consumption.

The water footprint concept is a geographically explicit indicator that shows volumes of water use and pollution, as defined by experts3. All countries import and export water in the form of agricultural commodities, where most developed nations have a net import. As a result, Europe’s water security strongly depends on external resources. Furthermore, countries like the UK are essentially outsourcing water over-use to importing countries that can least afford to take on this burden.

As the global water demand for food production increases, it is important to promote innovation in the food sector in terms of water-sustainability. By investing in water saving technology, water conservation measures and wastewater treatment, the adverse environmental and social consequences of high water usage in food production may be reduced and compensated for3.

Let Them Eat … Veg
The impact of livestock on the environment is a controversial topic. Its discussion tends to quickly transform into a debate of meat-eating versus vegetarianism, however a better approach would be that of sustainable versus unsustainable choices.

Why is meat one of the most environmentally unfriendly of all food groups? The simple answer is that livestock are accountable for approximately a fifth of CO2 emissions on a global scale. However, as usual, things are more complicated.

Meat based diets are largely inefficient. Typically, 30 kg of grain are used to produce 1 kg of grain-fed beef, where roughly 35% of the world’s crops are currently used for livestock feed5. Beef also has one of the largest global average water footprints with 15,500 litres per kilogram, in comparison to 250 litres per kilogram for potatoes3.

Roughly 30% of
the food produced
on the planet is
discarded, lost, or
consumed by pests

Technology, innovation, and production efficiencies are key to reducing the impact of livestock on the environment; however the question of consumption remains unanswered. Although livestock products and fish are important for a nutritious diet, in many countries their consumption is significantly higher than what is required for human health2. To put it simply, what’s healthy for the planet is generally healthy for people too. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a meat-based food system requires more energy, land and water resources than a lactovegetarian diet. The American Heart Association confirms that a lactovegetarian diet enables individuals to meet basic nutritional and calorific needs.

However, a lactovegetarian diet would not necessarily be the best solution to the issue of sustainability given that dairy products, particularly cheese and milk, have been found to have surprisingly high footprints5,6. Cheese actually results in more emissions than a number of other meats and fish foods. This gives a lactovegetarian diet the potential to have just as high an impact on the environment as a meat-based one.

The WWF1 suggests that a balanced diet, with more focus on the consumption of fruits and vegetables, as opposed to meat and dairy, would prove beneficial for both health and environmental issues. Nutritionists recommend the consumption of nuts and seeds, soy products, and legumes among other foods to meet recommended protein amounts, without consuming meat or dairy products7.

More Food from Less Land
The impact of food production with respect to land leads to the measure of an ecological footprint. We farm roughly 38% of the earth’s land surface, making agriculture the predominant human use of land4. Studies4 show that agriculture has caused an extensive amount of damage to the environment; it destroys habitats, uses up freshwater, pollutes rivers and oceans and emits greenhouse gases. Experts4 strongly recommend slowing and ultimately stopping the expansion of agricultural land, particularly for more sensitive ecosystems.

Increasing the productivity and overall efficiency of farms, by aiming for higher crop output per unit of water, fertilizer and energy, driven by research and innovation will be key to producing more food on less land. A culture of food consumption that rewards farmers for investing in sustainable methods could also reduce emissions and ensure that the rural economy thrives.

Waste Not, Want Not
Waste is a serious issue in food production, where studies4 claim that roughly 30% of the food produced on the planet is discarded, lost, or consumed by pests – there are huge losses incurred from field to fork2. There is a dramatic difference between the net available food for consumption and the initial, edible crop harvest.

Even the most conscientious
shopper often has a
hard time distinguishing
environmentally friendly fare

Waste tends to take place at the consumer end of the system in wealthy, developed countries. In this case, solutions include simple changes in daily consumption patterns such as the reduction of oversized portions and food thrown in the garbage. Losses in poorer countries are similar in size but occur at the producer end in the form of failed crops, stockpiles ruined by pests, as well as other reasons including bad infrastructure.

Researchers4 suggest that improved storage, refrigeration and distribution systems could cut waste significantly. A cell-phone system in Africa that links suppliers, traders and purchasers has seen notable results, and serves as an indicator of the potential that better market tools hold in this context. The complete elimination of waste may not be realistic, however targeted efforts, especially on the most resource-intensive foods, could make the crucial difference.

What Can We Do?
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
American Food Writer Michael Pollan, 2008

When considering food production on such a large scale, changing what we consume could realistically cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit damage to vulnerable species and environments. Apart from a diet balanced for health and environmental reasons, various other life style changes can make a difference.

Buying seasonal produce is often tastier, cheaper and is also better for the environment. Experts8 also suggest that cooking from scratch with seasonal ingredients can also be healthier. Farmers’ markets allow customers to enjoy fresh, seasonally grown food that is often produced in the area. An added benefit of these establishments is that more capital remains in the consumers’ community.

However, there are cases in which buying imported fresh produce can make more sense than buying locally. For example, it might be a more efficient use of energy and other resources to buy tomatoes in the winter that have been grown in natural sunlight in a southern country, as opposed to buying tomatoes grown in artificially heated greenhouses in Britain. This example illustrates how the issue of ‘food miles’ can be rather misleading, where the impact of transportation may only play a minor part.

Organics are positive in this context as they help reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides, as well as sustain local biodiversity. However, organic produce is not always an affordable solution. Additional suggestions made by the WWF9 include the purchasing of certified produce, such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance.

Complex Calculations
Bombarded with offers, slogans, certification and labelling, even the most conscientious shopper often has a hard time distinguishing comprehensively environmentally friendly fare. While food labels such as ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are popular among food suppliers, they do not tell us all that much about what we consume. Experts10 have suggested a new system of certification that awards points based on how well food delivers nutrition, food security, and other public benefits, minus their environmental and social costs, represented visually via the Livewell plate11.

A smartphone application called the Good Guide, which offers a similar solution, has already shown significant success on the market12. It is a free download that lets the user browse and search more than 70,000 entries for safe, healthy and sustainable products to purchase. In addition, various websites, such as the WWF13, exist which offer the use of a carbon footprint calculator that calculates the resultant emissions from the food you eat. Many of these models also offer personalised and practical solutions to reduce the footprint of one’s diet. The popularity of these resources would imply that people have a growing interest in being aware of the energy, transport and water cost of the food they consume.

Feeding the Future
The relationship between food consumption, health, agriculture, and the environment is complex. However, this does not mean that solutions to issues including carbon emissions, waste, water security, etc. should be perceived as intangible. Changes in what and how we eat on an individual basis, such as decreasing our reliance on meat, has potential to make a real difference via a combined effort.

Today, various resources offer a means of attaining more information on the sustainability of produce, such as phone apps and web-calculators. On a larger scale, there is a need for radical changes in the food production and farming industry to ensure that emission reduction targets are met and bio-security is respected.

Katherine Portilla is a third year undergraduate studying Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London, who is interested in taking an Msc Science Communication course.

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[1]    WWF UK (2011) Food: Changing the way we live. [Online] Available at: <http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/changing_the_way_we_live/food> [Accessed 31 October 2011]
[2]    Lundqvist J., Fraiture C. & Molden D. (2008) Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain. Stockholm International Water Institute.
[3]    Hoekstra A. Y. (2011) The water footprint of food. University of Twente. [Online] Available at: <http://doc.utwente.nl/77216/1/Hoekstra08waterfootprintFood.pdf> [Accessed 10 December 2011]
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[8]    WWF UK (2011) Think about what you eat.  [Online] Available at: <http://www.wwf.org.uk/how_you_can_help/change_how_you_live/think_about_what_you_eat> [Accessed 13 December 2011]
[9]    Gerbens-Leenes W. & Nonhebel S. (2005) Food and land use: The influence of consumption patterns on the use of agricultural resources. Appetite. 45: 24-31.
[10]    WWF (2011) A Square Meal. [Online] Available at: <http://www.wwf.org.uk/wwf_articles.cfm?unewsid=5236> [Accessed 19 November 2011]
[11]    WWF (2011) Livewell Report 2011. [Online] Available at: <http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/livewell_report_jan11.pdf>
[12]    Tech TUC (2011) 5 iPhone Apps that Help you Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. [Online] Available at: <http://techtuc.com/apple/5-iphone-apps-that-help-you-reduce-your-carbon-footprint> [Accessed 13 December 2011]
[13]    WWF Footprint Calculator [Online] Available at: <http://footprint.wwf.org.uk> [Accessed 13 December 2011]