How will we sustainably feed 10 billion mouths by 2050? That was the question we asked ourselves during the Wasteless Culture Monday the fourth of March; one of the weekly events that Taste Before You Waste (TBYW) organizes. A TBYW volunteer presented the broader subject of our future food system in relation to its’ connection with consumers’ dietary habits with the overall aim of both informing and providing a platform for discussion about the ‘sustainable future diet’.
© NextGen Policy
Questions that were addressed during the presentation and group discussion included; is there a way to feed 10 billion people by 2050? And if so, how can we establish that without exploiting the planet even more? What environmentally sustainable choices can we make? How do you create a large-scale shift in diet?
In accordance with the philosophy of Taste Before You Waste, the event provided insight into the role that the bottom-up movement plays in the wider context. It addressed the responsibility that us, as individuals, have for the health of the planet. And, the things we can do on a daily basis to maintain a healthy planet. One thing we learnt is that as consumers, we can have a massive influence on climate goals by making changes to our eating habits. However, the path towards it is an inherently complex one. For instance: we all know we should eat a little less meat. However, it remains a controversial subject to discuss. Eating culture is such an emotional one after all. We have however done the best we can to leave you with some new insights and ideas on how to change your diet into sustainable one: good for your and the planet’s health.
Our current food system is failing. Population is growing on a planet on which resources are exhausted, causing a risk of failure to meet the dietary needs of all these people. All the processes and infrastructures that are required to feed the population are threatening the stability of the climate and resilience of the ecosystems. In other words: The food system goes beyond the planetary boundaries, irreversibly damaging the environment (Willet, W et al, 2019). Whether you are familiar with Taste Before You Waste, who actively commits to tackling this problem, or not, this is a problem that addresses not only ourselves but future generations.
Food has the potential to be a powerful lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on earth. However, food is currently threatening both people and planet. The rise of the middle class the previous century in Europe and North America, and currently in Asia, coupled with urbanization has driven a transition from traditional diets to diets that contain large amounts of refined sugar, animal protein and fats. This is the exact diet that will cause an estimated 80% of increase in greenhouse emissions by 2050 (Tilman & Clark, 2014).
Consumers as part of the solution
The depressing part is over now. The problem may seem overwhelming, there are however solutions! By now, there is a lot of scientific evidence that emphasises the link between diets and environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, this has not yet resulted in large scale policy that works to transform the global food system. Until early this year, when EAT-Lancet, a commission of 37 scientist from sixteen different countries, published a report to set the first steps towards such goals and ways to achieve them. On the consumption end of the global food system there are improvements that should be made that basically entail; making a shift to a largely plant-based diet (Willet et al, 2019). The less animal protein is consumed, the better for the environment. So: in the future sustainable diet, fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and legumes (chickpeas, beans, peanuts etc.) are at the core and should, according to the authors of the report, be doubled in global consumption. The consumption of red meat should be cut in half (Willet et al, 2019).
What can YOU do?
There are several things you, as a consumer, can do to contribute to both physical and planetary health. First of all, we can agree that cutting down on meat is a rather controversial subject, due to multiple reasons. Not everyone can cut down meat straight away, and for many cultures meat is deeply ingrained in the diet. We can not expect everyone to cut down on meat cold turkey (😉): therefore here follow some tips on how to be be as environmentally sustainable as possible while still eating meat.
The sustainable meat-eater
The first thing you can do is choose wisely. Lamb and beef are by far the greatest creators of greenhouse gas: to produce one kilo of beef, 27 kgs of greenhouse gases are emitted. Lamb ranks first in the list, emitting 39.2 kgs of greenhouse gases The better choice would be to eat pork (12.1 kgs) or chicken (6.9 kgs). Chicken also needs very little space and can be fed more efficiently than cows: chickens need about 2kgs of feed to get 1kg of meat. Cows need 30kgs of feed for the same amount of meat! (Olthuis, L., 26th Jan. 2019. Slopen mijn boodschappen de wereld? | De Volkskrant. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6ISYyZN0qI&t=290s)
To give you an idea of the difference with plant-based protein-rich foods: the carbon footprint of many legumes rank very low on the list. Black beans emit 2.0kgs of greenhouse gases and lentils are the ultimate winner with 0.9kgs of greenhouse gas emission. Surprisingly, per serving black beans and lentils contain more protein than a serving of beef! (Bohrer, 2017) But then; what about dairy and eggs? They rank somewhere in the middle: the Co2 equivalent for cheese is 13.5 kgs and eggs 4.8 kgs. So: a vegetarian diet would be a step in the right direction. A final tip for decreasing pressure on the environment when you still want to eat meat: choose local! Imported meat impacts the environment with greenhouse gases that are emitted in the process, therefore meat from the local farm is the better option.
However, if we really want to sustainably feed 10 billion mouths in 2050, we need to stick to the plant-based diet. Another important thing to keep in mind while doing this, is to choose locally. The closer to home; the less energy-use in transportation. Tropical products cost a lot of energy to get to Europe, especially when they are flown in. Choose products that are shipped in.
Another, maybe even more important aspect to consider in buying your fruit ‘n veg’ is seasonality. Buying strawberries from the Netherlands in March gets the lowest score on the sustainability-ranking. You’d best get them from Spain in this month, as the energy cost from growing them in a greenhouse in the Netherlands is much higher compared to sun-grown strawberries from Spain, even considering the environmental costs of transportation (March 2019, retrieved from: https://groentefruit.milieucentraal.nl/milieuscore-van-groente-en-fruit/)
It sounds like quite a lot to comprehend, I know. To make things easier, here’s a helpful tool in checking what to buy and what not to buy. Milieucentraal developed a fruits- and vegetables calendar where you can check how environmentally friendly a product is in each season. Check out https://groentefruit.milieucentraal.nl/ to see what the best products are to buy considering the use of fossil fuels, contribution to climate change, land use and water stress. So leave those blueberries and raspberries for what they are in November, and enjoy them when the sun decides that they are ready to be grown locally. Taste the season!
© Stichting Permacultuur Advies
The sustainable plant-based diet: check your waste
Finally, needless to say it is a good move to reduce your food waste to be more environmentally sustainable at home. First of all: check the fridge! What do you have and how can you and your creative brain prepare a meal with what you already have? Secondly, measure the quantities of how much you need or freeze in what you can’t have. It might seem like no-brainers, but considering the fact that a European households on average waste about 4 kilograms a week (Quested & Johnson 2009;), there is much room for progress!
No sugar coating when it comes to the future of our food system: it is failing, it has irreversibly damaged the planet’s ecosystems and will do so in the future if big changes will not happen soon. That’s the bad news. The good news is, we have a choice, and the privilege to make an educated decision about how we choose to deal with problems that address all of us, and our common future. Shifting our diets to a more plant-based one seems like a good place to start towards a sustained planet that inhabits 10 billion people by 2050. You, too can contribute to the health of the planet by shifting your diet to a more plant-based one, choosing local and seasonal products, shop smart and use what you have at home so that you don’t have to throw anything away. It sounds like a lot, but all small bits help, and remember: we don’t need a few people to do it perfectly, we need everyone to do it imperfectly.
Coincidentally, this blog is posted during the National Meatless week (https://weekzondervlees.nl/) in the Netherlands. Comment below to share your opinion and ideas! Do you think a large-scale shift in diets is possible? And if so, how? How do you make sure you keep yourself in and the planet in good health with the things you put in your shopping basket? Keep an eye out for the coming blogs, as a bunch of recipes will follow where the planetary health diet can be put into practice!
- Bohrer, B. (2017). Review: Nutrient density and nutritional value of meat products and non-meat foods high in protein.
- Quested T, Johnson H. (2009) Household food and drink waste in the UK. wrap. Banbury UK. 2009. ISBN:1-84405-430-6
- Tilman, D. And Clark, M (2014). Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature, International Journal of Science. Volume 515, pages 518–52
- Willet, W. et al. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet Commissions. Volume 393, Issue 10170, pages 447-492.