Food accounts for as much as a third of greenhouse gas emissions, so how can we eat more sustainably?
Australia produces some of the best food in the world, from the fresh produce we grow, to our award-winning dairy, world-class wine and the coffee we brew. But, increasingly, Australians are recognising food’s impact beyond its ability to contribute to a delicious meal.Australians want to eat more sustainably. Dr Denise Hamblin, of market research firm Colmar Brunton, says there is rapid movement towards choosing food that supports a healthier planet.
“As we see social values moving, we also see diet and food preferences changing,” she says. “We’re looking for a better way of doing things and we’re courageous enough to scrap the old methods and start fresh.”
In fact, research shows that making good choices for our bodies is almost always better for the environment, too. So, what should be on our plates?
This is what a sustainable diet looks like
In a nutshell, we should be eating food that is more nutritious and has a smaller footprint. CSIRO researchers call this a higher quality and lower emission (HQLE) diet. Compared to eating lower quality and higher emission diets – usually those with lots of processed junk food – an HQLE diet cuts greenhouse gas emissions by almost half, CSIRO research has found.
Principal Research Scientist from the CSIRO, Brad Ridoutt says “Dairy in Australian diets represents around 10% of the carbon footprint and around 15% of the water footprint, which in other words, means that 90% of greenhouse gas emissions are coming from other kinds of foods.”
“We’ve also looked at the water footprint of plant alternatives and some have a lower water footprint, and some have a higher water footprint – so even if you stop drinking cow’s milk, it’s not that simple and there are trade-offs . It’s best if you can consume an appropriate amount of food and avoid wasting it,” he says.A sustainable diet considers the whole life cycle of food, from paddock to palate. Food production is a complex system that includes farming, logistics, processing and distribution – and that’s just to get it into the store. With so many working parts, making the right choices in the supermarket aisle can be tricky.
The CSIRO recommends we make three fundamental shifts:
1. Think about what your body needs and stick to it. We should be aiming for smaller serving sizes with higher value. Australians perform poorlywhen it comes to getting the right balance. The bigger the serving, the higher the impact on the environment – and our health.
2. Eat in line with Australian Dietary Guidelines. That means eating a wide variety of food from five groups: wholegrains; vegetables and legumes; fruit; dairy; and lean meat, fish and nuts. And it means consuming fewer chips, lollies and soft drinks. Tools such as the CSIRO Healthy Diet Score can show you how you measure up.
3. Reduce your food waste. In Australia, 3.7m tonnes of household food waste ended up in landfill in 2016-17 – that’s a waste of food, but also of the environmental impact of making it.
A truly sustainable diet considers every factorThe food system is estimated to account for 19-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, Dr Maartje Sevenster, from the CSIRO’s Climate Smart Agriculture group, says the relationship between food and the environment is complicated.“
Just looking at the percentage contribution doesn’t tell the whole story,” she says. While the food industry contributes relatively high emissions, it has positive impacts, too, from employment (agriculture is the biggest employer in the world) to our mental wellbeing. With no alternative to food, it’s impossible to cut emissions entirely. Instead, we need to think about how we can eat more efficiently for our health, and in a way that justifies the environmental and economic impacts.
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health says drastic changes in diet, food waste and production practices are required on a global scale. As well as having a positive impact on climate crisis, this shift would be likely to result in significant health benefits and reduce the worldwide burden of disease.
The EAT-Lancet report recommends setting boundaries for food production in a number of areas, including greenhouse gas emissions, water use and cropland use. Ideally, it says, world agriculture will shift from carbon contributor to carbon sink – absorbing more than it emits.
Climate health would not be the only benefit – eating this way is actually better for our bodies. Research shows that adopting an HQLE diet could reduce current adult mortality rates by as much as 23.6%.
What does all of this mean for the way we eat? In Australia, farmers are finding innovative ways to be more sustainable from the very beginning of the cycle.
Farming sustainably for our health and the planet’s tooSevenster says sustainable agriculture has a dual benefit. “It’s on the boundaries of environment and economy,” she says. Farming more sustainably, through innovation and land care, often makes better financial sense, too.
Dairying contributes about 1.6% of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and the industry has committed to keeping its nutrient-rich products on the menu while lowering its environmental impact. Dairy’s sustainability goals include taking stewardship of natural resources to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% and reducing water use by 20%. It’s all about striking the right balance between impact and output.
This activity aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs), which take an inclusive, big-picture approach to sustainability. Sustainable practice builds on itself – every innovation drives global progress forward.
Your new sustainable diet will have global benefitsTrue sustainability provides food and nutrition security for current and future generations. It meets multiple UNSDGs – not just zero hungerbut also clean water and sanitation, life on land, and responsible consumption and production.
Hamblin says consumers really want this level of equity, and are tired of waiting. “We’re looking for absolute transparency and honesty in everything, from the animals and staff involved in creating a product, to where and how it is made and the impact on the environment,” she says.
“Sustainability starts to come out as really important because we are seeking fairness.”
So what is still on the menu?It’s true: a sustainable diet means cutting back on the sweet stuff we love and reducing some other macronutrients but there is still plenty to enjoy – and cheese lovers will be pleased to find dairy is still on the menu. For inspiration, check out EAT forum’s tasty, healthy and planet-friendly recipes.
The upshot? Choose a diet that minimises your environmental impact by opting for one that is composed predominantly of foods with high nutritional value and small carbon footprint.Your body will thank you – and so will the planet.
source: the guardian