Tag Archives: sustainable food choices

The Meat-Lover’s Sustainability Dilemma

Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is set to announce that “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. So I want to highlight the fact that among options for mitigating climate change, changing diets is something one should consider.”

By contrast, transportation contributes 13% of our greenhouse gas footprint.

Greenhouse gases are released throughout the meat production cycle, during land clearing, making and transporting fertilizer, feed antibiotics and hormones, burning fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and emissions from the animals themselves, which is a major proportion of gases emitted. Refrigeration and transportation of the meat for processing, packaging, distribution, retailing and to the consumer are also huge contributers.

Population growth and changing consumption patterns in developing countries will continue to increase pressure on global food supplies and food security. Livestock production has increased all over the world as demand for meat rises. The resulting increase in water scarcity, land degradation and soil erosion are key threats to productivity of farmland, not to mention the effects of loss of biodiversity associated with deforestation for high-maintenance agricultural land. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that increases in global temperature adversely affects soil fertility, reducing crop yield. Water runoff from livestock farming can cause significant contamination and eutrophication of surface and ground water if the solid waste generated is not managed properly. Farming subisidies (like other poorly applied subsidy programs) tend to create an uneven playing field, further exacerbating the problem.

Possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming animals include genetically engineering strains of animals that produce less methane and ammonia. Organic farming is not a feasible option globally, due to the comparatively low productivity and yield.

We all know by now that eating less meat is better for your health. A price on carbon could cause the price of meat to rise, people would eat less, and, at the same time, reduce associated emissions of greenhouse gases and other adverse environmental impacts. This might just be the added incentive that ardent meat-lovers like me need to make another personal choice that contributes to the sustainability of our planet. Given the magnitude of the impacts, reluctantly, I’m adding eating less meat to my list of simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Making sustainable food choices

Granted, the global food supply is not one of the most significant contributors to climate change and emissions of greenhouse gases. However, in the spirit of maintaining awareness and doing what we can as individuals to mitigate the impacts of climate change, becoming aware of more sustainable food choices is a relatively easy action to take. I don’t believe in randomly curbing consumer choices (I love having access to the most exotic foods from around the world!), but just knowing about the factors that impact those choices can help to shift our mindset in meaningful ways.

It seems perfectly logical to start with organic, in-season, locally grown food. This addresses the importance of reducing the transportation distance from the farm to your supermarket and minimizing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, foods grown in climates and soils that are naturally most suited for their production can have a much lower environmental impact than local products grown under artificially enhanced conditions, even if they’re shipped across great distances. There are other factors to keep in mind to ensure that you’re reducing the carbon footprint of the food you consume:

  • irrigation requirements
  • methods of harvesting, processing, preservation and storage
  • minimal packaging, or at least reusable and recyclable packaging
  • climate and growing season
  • mode of transportation (air, water, rail, etc.)
  • fair trade and sustainable agriculture practices

Your method of cooking can negate all the effort you put into sourcing your food, if you’re not conscious of the energy and water consumed in its preparation.

Finally, coming soon to a supermarket near you— a carbon label for your food products.