Environmental issues have been a heated topic for a long time. People are trying various ways to reduce the negative human impact on the environment, and changing our diet is an effective way to do so. However, the impact of food on the environment hasn’t been emphasized well enough and only few realize that.
Based on the growing concern and curiosity, GreenMatch has created an infographic illustrating 6 ways our food is damaging the environment, and 5 actionable tips to make a change.
In this article, the impact of the most common types of foods in our fridges is analyzed—no matter if those are vegetables or meat, locally produced or imported.
How Does Food Damage the Environment?
What we eat can have a negative influence on the environment in many ways: it can affect the air, the soil, and the water supply.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Most people think transportation is the main cause of high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In contrast, all means of transportation take up only 14% of human-generated GHGs, while agriculture is accountable for up to 24%. To put this in perspective, the production of two pounds of lamb create almost the same amount of GHGs as driving from Central Park to Long Beach Island. This way, changing the way of eating may be more effective than switching to a hybrid car.
Carbon dioxide and methane are the two best-known greenhouse gases. Some people argue that by adopting a vegetarian diet, you can immediately reduce your personal CO2 footprint. While this is true to a certain degree, there are environmentally damaging effects of a vegetarian diet as well, e.g., the CO2 emission from the transportation of imported food. For example, avocado or asparagus may have traveled a long way from Brazil or the eastern Mediterranean region. This may have produced more GHGs than you may have initially expected.
In addition, methane is 25 times more threatening to the planet than CO2 in terms of climate change. Cows generate methane while they digest and ruminate. Similarly, rotten food not only produces an unpleasant smell but also releases 34% of human-caused methane into the atmosphere.
It is common sense that cultivating crops and farming cows can lead to deforestation, but some of the most common types of food you eat are also produced at the cost of countless trees.
Palm oil and coffee plantations are accountable for large parts of deforestation in tropical areas. Data shows that around 300 football fields of forest is cut down for palm trees every hour, and 11 million hectares of agricultural land were occupied by coffee trees in 2017.
One of the main reasons that lead to this situation is that the tall palm trees cast shadow on other plants living beneath them, blocking the vital sunlight for their photosynthesis, and thus, making their living impossible. Choosing to buy alternative products or products with the “shade-grown” label can help slow down the rate of deforestation. “Shade-grown” indicates that the plant can grow well in the shade, where there is not enough sunshine, and thus slow down the pace of deforestation.
Unfortunately, the tasty food that we grow also attracts unwanted creatures. To ensure the quality and quantity of our foods and ward off pests, 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides are used on crops alone every year in the U.S. The overuse of pesticides harms our health and pollutes the environment.
Sadly, apple, celery, strawberry, peach, and grapes, liked by many, all rank on top of the list of the plants which the highest amount of pesticides are used for. Check the infographic to find out what food is in the top ten and bottom ten highest according to the use of pesticide, and alter your grocery shopping list accordingly.
Synthetic fertilizers are another source of pollution. 150 million tons of synthetic fertilizers are used every year on crops globally. However, the average utilization ratio of fertilizers in developed countries is around 50%-60%, while in developing countries, it is only around 30%.
The excess use of fertilizers might lead to the pollution of soil and water. Excess chemicals which are not absorbed by plants will lower the drainage efficiency of soil crumbs. Soil crumbs are mainly made up of leaves, clay, and small rock particles, and once they are destroyed, it may result in land degradation. Apart from that, harmful chemical remains of fertilizers can also accumulate in our body.
To reduce the rate of pollution caused by synthetic fertilizers, you may want to opt for food grown using natural fertilizers.
Over time, the excess amount of fertilizers can end up being washed up in natural bodies of water, leading to eutrophication. This term refers to the case where sunshine and abundant nutrition from fertilizers create an optimal environment for water plants to grow in abnormal quantities. That many water plants lead to a dramatic drop in oxygen level in the water, which, in turn, can lead to the suffocation of fish and other marine organisms.
By eating more organic food and reducing food waste, we can lower the rate of eutrophication.
Large amounts of water are used while growing, producing, and transporting the food. Generally speaking, meat and dairy are amongst the food groups with the highest water footprint. Water is not only needed for animals to stay hydrated but also for growing the feed they eat. Therefore, these two industries require a huge amount of water to sustain themselves.
By changing your recipe and cutting down on your consumption of meat and dairy, you can effectively lower your water footprint.
How Can We Make a Change?
Just like calculating the calorie intake for a healthy diet, lowering the water and CO2 footprint also needs attention and dedication. Here are 5 simple, actionable tips that can be implemented by anyone:
- Keep it local: Locally produced food means a shorter distance between the producer and yourself, and thus a lower carbon
- Grow it yourself: Making the best use of your yard gives you an opportunity to control the chemicals used to grow your food.
- Go organic: Organic food is proved to contain more of certain types of nutrients. Apart from that, organic farming uses natural ways in fertilization, in weeding, and in controlling pest.
- Eat seasonal: Watermelons sold in wintertime travel a long distance, grown in greenhouse cultivations, hence, they consume more energy. Eating in-season food is for sure one of the simplest ways you can make a change.
- Balanced diet: Eating less meat can help save water and reduce GHGs. But it doesn’t mean that meat is all“bad” and all vegetables are “good”. Always keep a balanced diet and ask yourself where your food is from before doing the shopping.