We’re eating ourselves out of house and home. In much of the world, food has gone far beyond sustenance. It confers sophistication and status, commodities magnified by social media. As choice has exploded, we have become choosier. Fads for the latest imported superfood emphasise health benefits but neglect the cost of transporting it round the globe, or harmful impacts its emergence might have on its source region. Meanwhile we are exporting our habits, teaching up-and-coming countries to value foods the way we do. If we are what we eat then––in the developed world at least––we are greedy, spoilt and reckless.
In January 2019, EAT—a global non-profit working on the transformation of the food system—and The Lancet, an independent medical journal with almost two centuries of history—issued a joint report. Called Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food, it was compiled by 37 experts on health, agriculture, political science and environmental sustainability from 16 countries and points the way towards a global food economy that would fight chronic diseases in wealthy nations and provide better nutrition for poor ones, all without destroying the planet.
In an editorial, The Lancet wrote: “Intensive meat production is on an unstoppable trajectory comprising the single greatest contributor to climate change. Humanity’s dominant diets are not good for us, and they are not good for the planet.”
The report sets a goal for people in wealthy countries of eating one 75g serving of red meat a week, or one 150g serving every two weeks. Limits on pork, poultry and fish are more lenient as they are better for your health and less damaging to the earth.
The damage comes in a multitude of forms: burning land prior to, or after cultivation; biodiversity loss; astronomical water use; over-use of nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilisers; greenhouse-gas emissions from livestock; chemical pollution from herbicides and pesticides; and transport of livestock and produce.
Though the charge sheet is predictable enough, devil is very much in the detail.
Tofu is a case in point. Its carbon footprint is usually a fraction of that of chicken, but if it’s been grown on deforested land in Brazil, its footprint can be twice that of chickens.
Or how about almond milk? It exploded in popularity as a vegan alternative to cow’s milk. Then came a backlash as stories emerged about how much water it takes to produce. Yet while it is a thirsty crop, cow’s milk on average requires even more water––a fact often left unremarked by commentators keen perhaps to put hipsters in the dock. For any form of milk––or indeed any liquid––the best thing is to source it as locally as possible, reducing the footprint of its transportation.
To help make sense of this, on their website WWF advises shoppers to look for logos on food that suggest greater sustainability. They mention Fairtrade (protecting farmers and workers in developing countries), Freedom Food (animal welfare), MSC (Marine Stewardship Council — wild-caught seafood) and ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council — farmed seafood), and RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil).
Dig enough and you’ll find question marks against most of these industry watchdogs. Some environmentalists say we should avoid all palm oil for example. But it’s in so many foods, as well as in toiletries, cosmetics and much else, that replacing it is difficult and expensive. The alternatives may also not be sustainable. Though many people know that the palm oil industry has levelled vast tracts of the world’s rainforest, fewer realise that for the moment, most alternatives produce less oil for a given area of land.
It’s no wonder consumers feel confused. The important thing is to make a start anyway. Much of what is good for us, is also better for the planet and we all know the basics by now: eat more plant-based foods including whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts), vegetables, fruits and nuts; and fewer animal-based foods, especially red and processed meats.
The EAT-Lancet Commission suggests experimenting with spices in the place of so much salt, using dairy judiciously to add flavour and richness rather than as a major component, choosing ‘good’ fat over low fat, and moving nuts and legumes to the centre of the plate.
As for sustainability, most sources agree there are a number of easy wins anyone can start with:
Fend for yourself. Grow vegetables and herbs in your garden, or on your terrace or windowsill. Learning what’s involved brings new appreciation of the true costs of food.
Shop locally. Put your dollars into the community in which you live, reducing transportation costs.
Know your onions. Talk with market stallholders, staff at your supermarket or grocery store, restaurateurs and those already growing more of their food to pick up tips.
Put your money where your mouth is. While talking to staff in food stores and restaurants, discuss supporting local production and sustainable agriculture.
Season well. Focus on foods that are in season where you live.
Drink from your tap. Liquids are heavy so have a big footprint. Avoid bottled beverages, use a refillable bottle and fill it with water from the tap or filter.
Minimise packaging. Buy in bulk. It boils down to being less greedy, more grateful and more careful with your choices. That and keep reading. The EAT-Lancet report may have deployed heavyweights from across the board but it’s far from the last word on the subject.