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How our Diets Impact the Environment

One thing that is often talked about nowadays is the relationship between our diet and climate change. Today, the way a lot of humans eat does not only harm lots of innocent animals but also the environment. There are many reasons for that, but in this post I want to just give an overview of some of the effects our way of eating has. I am going to dive deeper into each issue in future posts.



So, let’s start with a quick overview. According to a paper by Richie and Roser 26% of the worlds green house emissions are due to agriculture, that’s one third! This shows that our diet has a big impact on climate change. And there are many more impacts.


Because the crops grown in agriculture are not only consumed by humans, let’s first have a look at the livestock industry first.


The Livestock Industry


Due to today's high demand for cheap meat factory farming supplies us with most of it. This has several detrimental consequences. In factory farming the animals are forced to live in spaces way too small for them. The consequence: disease spreads very easily. Because of that farmers feed them antibiotics, which's residue is stored in the meat we humans eat, potentially resulting in antibiotic resistances, which are problematic antibiotics won't be effective anymore in case we become sick. Not so convenient, right? This is one of the problems factory farming raises that effects us directly.

Another problem are the environmental threats it poses. In order to win grazing land and land where the food for lifestock can be grown forests in general but also the rain forest in the Amazonas has been getting cleared. That’s problematic as the rain forest stores a big share of the world's CO2 and hosts the most biodiversity. Actually, forests in general absorb twice as much CO2 Thant they admit, worldwide that amounted to 16 billion metric tonnes absorbed between 2001 and 2019.

Additionally, the methan emitted by cattle is problematic as well. 94% of all animals in the world are from animal agriculture, so the negative impact on the environment is huge. By looking at the graph below it becomes clear that beef, cheese and pork meat habe the biggest impact. One out of several reasons is the land-use.




Because of this as well as ethical reasons the best would of course be to stop eating animal products completely, but I know that this is unfortunately still unrealistic for a lot of people. But everyone can try to reduce their consumption of animal products by buying just as much as they really needed (instead of throwing some away because of buying more than they can eat) and finding vegan alternatives you like for at least a few products. If enough people start to do that, I believe that it will have a big, positive impact on the environment.


The Farming Indstry


Next, let´s take a look at the farming industry.

According to Ritchie and Roser, at least half of the world wide land-use is attributed to agriculture. Furthermore, 70% of all sweet water and 78% of sea water are polluted due to it. One reason for that is the use of toxic fertilizers. Additionally, as an effect of mono culture and fertilizers the soil is deteriorating, leading to more vulnerable crops and fewer yields, which again then leads to more forest clearing and increasing use of fertilizers.


So, let´s see what alternatives we have. I think there are three ways to to practice sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture.

The first method is permaculture. I would describe permaculture as the opposite of mono culture, meaning that instead of cultivating just one crop at a time, you plant different ones together, which help each other grow and protect each other from damages. This way little fertilizer and pesticides are needed, the soil stays rich and the plants grow better. By the way, this can actually be practiced at home in gardens as well!



A second method is agroforestry, which is kind of the same as permaculture but also incorporates (fruit) trees as well as sometimes animals like sheep grazing underneath them. This way farmers use less land as agriculture and livestock are combined in one place and the excrements serve as natural fertilizer.



The third method is urban farming, which means that vegetables and fruits are cultivated in cities, for example in roof top gardens, raised beds or on balconies. Everyone can practice it, even if it’s just having some herbs on the window sill. This helps with providing fresh produce for the city which reduces transportation ways, improves the resilience of cities, fosters biodiversity, helps with the heat island effect and fosters a connection to nature.



Food Waste


The last topic I want to raise awareness about here is food waste, because reducing food waste directly helps with all the problems already mentioned.

According to the European Commission, one third of all our food gets wasted and thrown away. Furthermore, 6% of all CO2 emissions comes from food loss alone. If we all only bought the food we actually need we could avoid a lot of it. I want to go into strategies on how to reduce food waste at home in a future post.



Last but not least, I want you to think about whether it is ethical to eat meat even though the land used for livestock and the food for these animals could be used to feed humans who are currently starving.

And about whether it is ok to eat living, sentient beings even though we can meet our nutritional needs from plants alone (of course it is something different if someone has an illness or allergies which make it too difficult to eat completely vegan).




Conclusion

In conlclusion, in order to sove the climate crisis it is necessairy to rethink our food system which requires changes in how and where food is produced, what we eat and how we think about food. If everyone made changes in their diet, even if they are small, I think the world could benefit a lot from it.


Actionable steps for you

If you now feel like you want to do something to combat these problems, here are some actionable steps you can take. There’s no need to incorporate everything at the same time, just pick what seems doable for you and stick to it for now.


  • Plan your meals for the week and just buy the ingredients you need for that in order to prevent food waste. Preferably, chose the recipes in a way that you can use up the ingredients which are left over from previous meals. I personally like to make stir-fries or soups with leftovers.

  • Maybe you could trade left-overs with your neighbors or offer food (if still good of course) to your neighbors before a trip if you weren’t able to use it up.

  • If you are not vegan already, try out plant-based alternatives once in a while and see if you can find ones you like in order to replace at least some of the animal products you regularly eat.

  • Try out one vegan day per week or at least one vegan meal per week.

  • Try out the vegan alternative at restaurants sometimes.

  • Try to eat what is in season and locally sourced whenever possible. For example: if you live in Germany, try out flaxseed which is grown here instead of chiaseeds which come form far away.

  • Grow your own herbs on the window sill or some veggies on the balcony.

  • Regrow your veggies! Did you know that when you buy leek with the roots still on, you can chop off the green bits and insert the white part with roots in water or plant it in a pot with soil and then the green parts grow again? If you then always only chop off the green bits, they grow back countless of times.



If you want to try some easy vegan recipes, I have lots here on my blog.



 

Sources

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) - "Environmental Impacts of Food Production". URL.: https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food (2022.10.07)

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