To ensure that 10 billion future people can eat, look at your carbon ‘foodprint’ today
Eat your vegetables and go easy on meat.
It’s advice your doctor might give because a plant-centric diet is associated with a lower risk of various ailments like heart disease and obesity.
People whose job it is to worry about global warming say vegetarians have about half the food-related carbon footprint of meat-eaters. But, no need to live on tofu. You’ll improve your “foodprint” by just pushing meat off the center of the plate and piling on the veggies.
Experts on eco-eating and recent research back this up.
10 billion hungry people
The biggest news at the intersection of eating and environment is the EAT-Lancet report, published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed Lancet medical journal. It’s the work of 37 scientists from 16 different countries, funded by the Wellcome Trust, an independent medical research charity based in London.
The report, which has been getting a lot of buzz, sets out to answer the mind-boggling question of how to feed the future population of 10 billion people a healthy, earth-friendly diet.
“Most people don’t realize that the food system is one of the primary ways that humans are affecting the environment,” explained Valerie Stull, an interdisciplinary environmental health scientist and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute.
“Forty percent of ice-free land is used for agriculture — for pasturing animals or growing crops,” she said. “The food system and agricultural production are responsible for almost 30% of all greenhouse gases that we emit through human activity globally.”
According to Stull, what’s groundbreaking about this study is that it “brought together experts from very disparate disciplines. So we have people who study earth systems and sustainability and agriculture working in close tandem with medical professionals and nutritionists — and all these people came to consensus in this report.”
What they came up with is an ambitious — some will say overly ambitious — plan to transform eating habits, make food production more sustainable and reduce food waste.
There are recommendations galore and initiatives about everything from obesity to malnutrition in this report, which comes with the official name of “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT – Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems.”
But at its core is the Healthy Planet Diet. And it calls for more healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts, and fewer unhealthy foods such as red meat, sugar and refined grains.
It bears some similarity to the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines in MyPlate. Both emphasize vegetables, fruits and whole grains. However, the planetary diet reduces animal protein, dairy products and sugar. You’ll find a full comparison at foodinsight.org (search “EAT-Lancet Report on Sustainable Diets”).
And, sorry paleo-people, the Healthy Planetary Diet comes down particularly hard on beef, pork and lamb, recommending no more than about 3 ½ ounces of red meat a week; that’s about one smallish burger. For poultry and fish, the allotment is more generous, just shy of about one-half pound of each per week.
Stull explains that “beef in particular can be quite damaging to the environment. It typically requires more water, more land, more feed and emits more greenhouse gases than any other protein source.”
Meat as a treat
Think of it this way, she suggested: “It’s not saying never eat meat, but instead eat one burger a week or one steak a month. Treat red meat maybe the way you treat lobster, as an indulgence, as a special-occasion food, not an everyday food.”
And the good news is that that we’ve already got some greener pastures.
“Many Wisconsin farmers are doing their best to produce livestock and dairy products using sustainable practices,” Stull said. “So how can we support them in doing that, what do they need?”
From her perspective, the EAT-Lancet report is not a “silver bullet” but rather “one of the first comprehensive guideposts for how to optimize health and environmental sustainability.”
At the very least, she’d like it to be a rallying cry.
“Consumers can do a lot with small changes,” she said. “If everyone ate a little more toward the reference diet, we could shift demand, and the food system would respond, potentially moving in a direction that’s more sustainable to meet that demand,” she said.
You might wonder if Stull practices what she preaches. She is indeed a vegetarian except for — honest — edible insects like crickets.
She has coined the word “entotarian” for someone like her. And much of her research is about assessing ways to optimize the use of protein-rich bugs as a healthy and sustainable part of human nutrition.
(If you share her appetite for insects, check out the upcoming Swarm to Table event taking place in Madison April 25 to 27. In addition to speakers, there will be cooking workshops, beer and bug tastings and an insect-inspired feast, for which tickets are required ($12 students, $25 non-students.) To reserve tickets for various events and for more information, go to swarmtotable.org.)
Assessing your impact
Bugs or no bugs, the factors involved in making food choices — cost, carbon footprint, nutrition, to name a few — can be overwhelming.
One person looking to make those choices easier for you, and kinder to Mother Earth, is Tom Bryan, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and a member of the Mindful Climate Action group, which is part of UW’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.
He’s still putting the finishing touches on his doctoral dissertation, but his concept is to develop a calculator that will give people “a complex picture of their own diet's impact, rather than a simplified picture of chicken vs. beef, for example.”
There already are A vs. B carbon footprint calculators, such as the one devised by and Oxford University researcher, which can be accessed at bbc.com.
There you’ll find out, for instance, that by drinking a pint of beer a day, you contribute 243 kg annually to greenhouse emissions or the equivalent of driving a gas-powered car 622 miles. A glass of wine, by comparison, equals 114 kg and 291 miles.
But Bryan is after information that takes more factors into consideration.
Here’s an example of what he’s talking about: “A resident of the southwestern U.S. may value lower water-footprint foods more than someone from the Great Lakes region. A resident of coastal North Carolina might value lower carbon-footprint (foods) more than someone less directly affected by Earth's changing climate and rising sea levels.”
Ideally, he said, this calculator could add information to the existing diet tracking software for calories and nutrition.
And looking to the future, he imagines a day when — thanks to the wonders of artificial intelligence and photo recognition technology — you’ll be able to take a picture of your dinner “and find out the eco-impact of your meal.”
He also would like to see an “eco-impact facts table” included along with the nutrition facts on packaged foods.
“The pairing of these two tables also implies a cost-benefit relationship,” he said. “On one hand, here are the vital nutrients you are eating, and on the other hand, here are the environmental costs.”
So instead of standing at a grocery store debating about blueberries (healthy) that have been flown in from Peru (all those food miles), you’ll have the information you need to make an informed decision.
He pointed to the “climatarian diet” as being the one most closely related to his research. Its aim is to help address climate change by reducing the consumption of the meat most damaging to the environment, primarily beef and lamb.