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Beyond Food

Naina Qayyum

By Naina Qayyum

Revisit Your Plate to Reverse Climate Change

Our food systems and environment are inextricably linked. The way food systems work has an impact on the environment because food production uses soil, water, and natural resources and adds waste to the surroundings. Together, food systems and the environment have significant impacts on human health, through the food available for human consumption and the quality of the air and water.

 

There have been 26 COPs (Conferences Of the Parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) since 1995 to help the world recognise and understand the importance of climate change and its consequences for humans and the planet. Climate change is, in some ways, a vicious cycle of humans killing humans.

 

The recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow focused on revisiting goals and proposing new plans to limit rising temperatures to 1.5°C and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, despite food system supporters pushing to include food systems on the climate action agenda, food systems and their impact on climate were not given enough attention during the dialogues. Food systems transformation can go a long way to reducing negative impacts on the environment and human health.

Graphic showing data on the impact of food systems on climate
Food systems impact on the environment. Source: resourcepanel.org

How do food systems contribute to climate change?

According to one report, food systems contribute to one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, which are directly responsible for rising global temperatures and their consequences. From farm to plate, food goes through several stages, including production, processing, packaging, and transportation. All of these processes use fossil-fuel-powered energy and generate hazardous waste, either in the form of chemical discharges from farms or factories, through food packaging waste, or through emissions during transportation.

 

Consumption of meat, particularly beef, is another contentious link between food systems and climate change. According to the World Research Institute, reducing beef consumption by half could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.5 billion tonnes each year.

How does climate change impact human health?

When we talk about climate change, we tend to think about rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and shifting weather patterns. We rarely discuss health issues that are equally dangerous consequences of climate change, such as respiratory diseases, hunger, and malnutrition.

 

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress, according to a WHO estimate.

How can we mitigate the impact of diets and food systems on climate change?

To understand the carbon footprint of our diets, we must reassess our plate (carbon footprint refers to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by an individual, activity, or product).

 

Possible changes we can each implement include:

  • Eat local: Food travels a long way to get to us. Transporting and storing food necessitates the use of fuel, which contributes to pollution. One way to reduce our carbon footprint is to eat as locally as possible. By consuming food much closer to its source, we reduce its total travel-related energy consumption.
  • Avoid food waste: About one-third of the food produced today is wasted, sometimes even before reaching consumers. Food that is wasted ends up in landfills, where it can rot and produce greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. Further, food waste includes not just the food items that go unconsumed, but also food packaging: all unrecyclable food packaging materials, like Styrofoam and plastics, also end up in landfills and oceans, causing long-term pollution.
  • Use your agency: As consumers, we have much more agency than we realise to mitigate climate change via our food choices. If we opt for more processed, mass-produced, industrialised food and fast foods, we are not only contributing to environmental damage, but also putting our health at risk. Instead of consuming carbonated drinks in plastic bottles every day, we can switch to consuming water from a reusable bottle — consistently done, this can go a long way. Similarly, as consumers, we have the choice to demand more information on the environmental and health impacts of our food, and thus, to make food producers improve their food production processes and methods or risk losing our business.
  • Educate: It is really important to continue learning and to teach our children about how to build a healthier relationship with food, that is good for our bodies as well as the environment. Inculcating in children the values of thinking about the wider consequences of individual actions can go a long way in developing a more environmentally-conscientious generation.

Eating local, avoiding food waste, using your agency, educating, and more -- what's your favorite way to eat to reduce your carbon footprint?

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