The Environmental Impact of Food

This week’s Food Savvy Friday will be all about the environmental impact of popular diets and foods. From carbon footprint to water use, we will explore how different foods can harm the environment, and easy ways you can reduce your negative environmental impact.

The process of bringing food from farm to table includes many steps that use energy, water, and chemicals, all of which have environmental impacts. The chemicals used in fertilizers, pesticides, and food packaging can get into waterways and harm aquatic life in a process called eutrophication. Agriculture accounts for 78% of ocean and freshwater eutrophication. Beef and fish are the highest contributors to eutrophication, with 365 grams and 301 grams of runoff per kilogram produced. The effects of eutrophication are seen in the area in the “dead zone” of the Gulf of Mexico. Due to fertilizer runoff, life cannot be sustained in this 6,000 to 7,000 square mile area. Animal products like beef, fish and cheese are the top producers of runoff whereas plant foods contribute much less.

Food production also accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock and fisheries being the largest contributors. Major contributors to greenhouse gas release are land use change, farming, and animal feed production. Beef production releases 36 kilograms of carbon dioxide per 1,000 kilocalories, and soybeans release 1.75 kilograms of carbon dioxide per 1,000 calories. In addition, eating locally sourced animal products has been shown to have a minimal impact on greenhouse gas emissions compared to eating non-animal products.

Water use is another important factor in a food’s environmental impact with 69% of the world’s water use coming from agriculture. Surface water, ground water, and rainwater are needed to produce food items and to dilute waste materials from food production. Animal products require the most water, as water is needed to grow animal feed like soy and corn. Beef requires 1,375 liters of freshwater per 100 grams of protein, whereas soybeans require 97 liters per 100 grams of protein.

There are many ways we can make our diet more environmentally friendly. Animal products have the greatest impact and by swapping for plant-based products when possible, we can drastically reduce our environmental impact. For example, you can swap out beef with lentils or soy in many popular recipes such as tacos and pasta bolognese. Small changes can make big differences, so there is no pressure to give up animal products completely. Modelling studies show that by reducing the average American’s consumption of animal products by half, land use and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would also be cut in half. To better understand how your specific diet impacts the environment, you can utilize online calculators that show how much water is required or how much greenhouse gases are emitted based on your diet.

When we think about food, we often focus on how it affects our own health. But it is important to also think about how our food choices affect the world around us. Our health is inherently tied to the planet’s health. Climate change impacts agriculture and to feed a growing population we require a planet fit for food production. Easy dietary changes can lessen our environmental impact on the planet.