It is estimated that by 2050 the global population will reach 9 billion people. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.
The problem is, our current food supply is already at breaking point. We’re destroying our rainforests, polluting our oceans and decimating our soil, all in a desperate attempt to put food on our plates.
Food production dominates our landscapes using approximately 50% of the ice-free land on Earth, yet every day billions of people around the world go without enough to eat. Over 70% of our water supply is used for agriculture yet over 35% of the population don’t have access to clean water to drink.
In developed countries food consumption is estimated to account for between 20% to 30% of a family’s total carbon footprint. That’s more than car travel, air travel, heating, and electricity. And at the same time, thousands of acres of rainforest are destroyed every day to produce even more food to satisfy our growling bellies.
It’s clear that something needs to change, and fast.
Eating to protect the planet is an extremely emotional issue but it doesn’t have to be a complicated one. In fact, with just a few small changes to our plate we have the power to make a HUGE impact. We can literally use our knives and forks to vote for a cleaner and greener future for Earth and at the same time, a healthier future for ourselves too.
Doesn’t that sound like something we can all get behind?
Whilst this blog will only scratch upon the surface of what is one of the most important topics in the world today, I hope that it will give you some insight into how we can eat for a healthier and more sustainable future.
The crux: eating animals
I’m not going to sugar coat it for my meat eating friends. The biggest problem our planet faces right now is our insatiable appetite for animal produce.
According to a recent article in Time magazine, “there may be no other single human activity that has a bigger impact on the Earth than the raising of livestock.” And when we look more closely at our food supply the more we realise that our reliance on animals for food is outdated and grossly unsustainable.
Take the rainforest for example, of which over 80,000 acres are destroyed every day. That’s an area half the size of England each year. At the current rate of deforestation the world’s rainforests will completely vanish within 100 years.
Over 70% of this deforestation is to clear space for cattle ranches.
Not only is this clearly unsustainable in terms of resources but deforestation is also a huge contributor to climate change. Trees play a critical role in absorbing the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming; meaning the fewer trees on the planet the faster and more severe the impacts of climate change will become.
And here’s where it gets really crazy…
Over a third of the world’s farm land is currently used to grow food for factory farmed animals. These animals eat enough to feed 9 billion people. Which, co-incidentally, is the same number that experts predict will be walking the earth by the middle of the century.
Putting it another way, we already have more than enough resources to feed the world on a plant based diet. The problem is that these plants are being run through the digestive tracts of bovine animals instead of ending up on our plate.
Animal agriculture also relies on intensive water use with over 14,000 litres of water required to produce just 1 kilogram of beef. That’s enough drinking water for one person for over 19 years.
To top it all off the intensive production of crops for factory farmed animals relies heavily on pesticides and artificial fertilisers which strip the soils of their vital nutrients whilst at the same time polluting our oceans and rivers. Pesticide and fertiliser residue is the leading cause of ‘dead zones’ in our oceans where marine life can no longer survive.
In 2015, a Frontiers in Nutrition study compared the environmental impact of a vegetarian diet including eggs and dairy, with an omnivorous diet that included 1 serving of meat per day. The vegetarian diet reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 63% and required 61% less land and 67% less water. The researchers also found that a vegan diet, where no animal products are consumed, had a carbon footprint that was a further 31% lower than the vegetarian diet.
There’s no denying the evidence. The first step we must take to save our planet is to dramatically reduce our consumption of animal products.
Beef vs Beans
A team of scientists from Oregon State University, Bard College, and Loma Linda University (all located within the USA) calculated what would happen if the US population made just ONE dietary change. Replacing their beef for beans.
The results were staggering. From this one change alone the USA would make up to 74% of the reductions needed to reach their reduced greenhouse gas targets set in 2009.
The researchers also found that 1 kilogram of protein from beans requires approximately 18 times less land, 12 times less fertiliser, 10 times less water, and 9 times less fuel when compared with 1 kilogram of protein from beef!
Studies like this prove that eating to protect the planet doesn’t have to be complicated. Swapping beef for beans is one of the simplest changes we can make but it will have an enormous difference on the future of our planet.
Beans are cheap, tasty, and incredibly healthy. And believe it or not 100 grams of black beans deliver exactly the same amount of protein as 100 grams of beef! All whilst providing a far superior source of fibre, magnesium, iron, and calcium.
What about fish?
According to environmental expert Ryan Andrews, 90% of fish stocks in the ocean are exploited or overexploited. If overfishing and pollution continue at the current rate we can expect to see a complete collapse in the world’s fish populations by 2048.
The main issue with modern day fishing is that it is done on such an enormous scale, with hulking vessels of steel trawling with nets up to 50 miles long. They scoop up whole ecosystems in one swoop, causing damage which our oceans just cannot replenish. Not only is this decimating the populations of the fish themselves but it is also destroying all marine plants and algae that they feed from.
Another issue with fish is the toxins that they contain due to our pollution of the oceans. Besides being an environmental disaster, this is also seriously bad news for your health.
If you are serious about saving our planet the first thing you can do is cut down on animals and load up on legumes. Beans, lentils, and chick peas are some of the most sustainable and environmentally efficient sources of protein on the planet and once you feel the benefits of moving towards a more plant based diet, I predict that you’ll end up ditching animal products altogether.
What else can we do?
A global shift towards a more plant based diet is the most important thing we can do to protect our planet but alongside this there are a few more ways you can make an impact using the food on your plate.
Eat ugly: See that carrot that's a little out of shape? Or that avocado that’s a little too ripe for eating but would make PERFECT guacamole? Embracing ‘ugly’ foods that don’t fit the supermarket stereotype is one of the easiest ways you can help prevent food waste. In the UK alone we threw out 4.4 million tonnes of ‘avoidable’ food waste in 2015, so embracing those less-than-perfect fruits and veggies is a bulletproof way to bring this number down and reduce the strain on our food production.
Choose organic: The biggest issue with conventionally grown produce is the reliance upon pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers which strip the nutrients from our soil. If we want to continue to produce healthy food for generations to come, we need healthy soil to do so. Organic farming methods help to sustain the long term health of our soil by rotating crops and using compost to ensure that those all important nutrients are returned to the soil.
Buy local: Supporting local farmers and growers means less miles from farm to table, helping to reduce the carbon footprint of the food we eat. Buying local generally means less reliance on crops grown on an industrial scale with excessive fertiliser and pesticide use.
Avoid plastic: You don’t need me to tell you about the strain plastic is putting on our planet, so the more we can cut down on its use the better. Try to buy food ‘loose’ rather than in plastic containers. And avoid bottled water in favour of a refillable glass bottle.
Choose Fairtrade certified: Look for the Fairtrade symbol wherever you can, particularly when buying from areas such as Africa and South America. This will help to ensure small and independent growers are given a fair price for their work, allowing them to support their families and communities. The more small fair trade farmers we can support, the less we will have to rely on huge industrial scale farms for our food production.
The sooner we all pull together and think about the global impact of the food we put on our plates, the brighter the future for this planet we call home. Eating to protect the planet doesn’t have to be radical or overwhelming. Make small changes, one at a time, and we will all share the benefits together.
I used a number of sources and research papers to compose this article, which have been listed below. I would also like to give special thanks to environmentalist Ryan Andrews for his help and advice throughout the process.
Other sources include: