Food and the Environment

Would you like to reduce the environmental impact of your diet by up to 73%? Environmental scientist, Dom Eardly, tells us how…

Many of us today are aware of the impacts humanity is having on the world. 19 of the last 20 years are the warmest on record according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)(1). Blue Planet II showed us the extent of global plastic pollution and global climate strikes are likely to be a feature of our summers for some time to come. 

As a result, people are looking to reduce their individual environmental impact in a whole host of ways. Some get reusable water bottles to cut down on single use plastics. Others opt to take showers rather than baths to reduce their water consumption. There are loads of great things we can do to help the planet but what’s the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact (shy of shunning all society and technology to live in a cave)? According to a 2019 study conducted at Oxford University and published in Science, it’s avoiding meat and dairy(2)

The study in question, titled ‘Reducing food’s environmental impact through producers and consumers’ is the biggest of its kind. Almost 40,000 farms were involved across 119 countries, covering 40 food products which represent 90% of all the food eaten globally. A thorough lifecycle assessment of each food product was undertaken from how it is grown, packaged, transported and purchased for consumption, with the assessment quantifying land use, emissions, use of freshwater and the pollution of water and air. 

It was found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce your environmental footprint from food by as much as 73%. Meat and dairy products were also found to be the main culprit regarding air and water pollution. 

Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth

Today, almost 2/3 of greenhouse gases produced in agriculture come from meat and dairy, but these industries provide less than 1/5 of our calories and less than 2/5 of our protein. Meat and dairy also take up over 80% of land use in agriculture. That’s a huge amount of land for such a small return. 

Animal agriculture has always been inefficient. When a cow, pig or chicken takes in energy in its food, some of that goes to growth (which is then passed on to a human when they eat it), but the animal also uses energy to move about and to power its complex organs. Plants on the other hand, put almost all of the energy they receive into growth, making for a much more efficient source of food. One way for animal agriculture to improve its efficiency is to limit the movement of livestock. This is achieved with methods such as battery farming, where animals are kept in cramped cages. Less than ideal. 

The number one driver of habitat loss worldwide is agriculture(3). Vast swathes of ancient forests in the Amazon and Southeast Asia are being cleared in order to grow soy. Although soy is often consumed highly in plant-based diets, the vast majority of soy is grown to feed animals. A paper published by Chatham House in 2016 estimated that 70-75% of the world’s soy ends up as feed for chickens, pigs, cows, and farmed fish, with only 6% of soy being consumed directly by humans(4)

Amazon deforestation hits new high according to latest official ...
Amazon deforestation hit a new high in November 2019

Because animals are so inefficient at converting calories from feed into calories in meat, if we were to remove the chickens, pigs, cows and fish from the equation and directly consume the crops we feed them, the amount of land saved would be the equivalent of the US, China, Australia and all of the EU combined. This could then free up land for rewilding, providing natural stores of carbon which will be vital in the fight against climate change. 

That sort of transformation is a long way away. In the meantime, small individual choices can help. Why not try switching cow’s milk for oat milk?

Written by Dom Eardly


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