The Environmental Impact of Food

The food we eat not only impacts our health, but also the health of our planet. To learn more about how the food you eat every day can have long-term consequences on our planet, keep reading! 

In this week’s Food Savvy Friday, we will be learning 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 through your diet. 

The process of bringing your 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, food packaging can leach into waterways and harm aquatic life in a process called eutrophication. When water becomes enriched with nutrients, harmful algae blooms begin to grow, eventually leading to dead zones that can’t support aquatic life.  The production of animal products accounts for most of the negative impacts on the earth’s water, with agriculture accounting 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. Primarily due to fertilizer runoff, life cannot be sustained in this huge 6,000 to 7,000 square mile area.  

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, whereas soybeans release much less, only 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. comparable to eating non-animal products.  

Water use is another important factor in a food’s environmental impact as 69% of the world’s water use comes from agriculture. Surface water, groundwater, 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 a staggering 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 most environmental impact, and by swapping animal products 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. One step in the right direction might be to pick one type of meat (e.g. beef, chicken, or pork) and cut that type out of your diet. Modeling studies show that by reducing the average American’s consumption of animal products in 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; to feed a growing population, we require a planet fit for food production. Even easy or small dietary changes can lessen our environmental impact on the planet.