Foods Role in Sustainability

By: Charlotte Miller

“As consumers we have so much power to change the world by just being careful in what we buy” – Emma Watson 

In recent years, it has become more evident to the general public that the food we eat has an impact on the environment. One of the primary reasons I am a pescatarian (I do not eat meat, but I eat fish and eggs) is because the meat and dairy industry have significant, detrimental impacts on the environment. There is no doubting that environmental issues and concerns have been at the forefront of presidential campaigns, a consistent topic for media outlets, and celebrity advocacy. Not to mention, the publicity global climate strikes have been getting recently. *Cue Greta Thunberg*

You may wonder how food plays a role in sustainability and what the environmental impact of some of your favorite foods are. Well, you are in for a treat, an informative treat!

There are a few major components that need to be examined when discussing food’s role in sustainability. The production, transportation,  energy consumption, and water use are some of the elements that have an impact on the environment. There is a lot to unpack here, but these are important topics and issues that need to be understood and discussed in order for a difference to be made! 

The production of food leads to food loss and food waste. Food loss refers to the amount of food that becomes spoiled or destroyed during the production and packaging processes. Food waste refers to the amount of food thrown out by consumers. In addition to the production of the products, feeding livestock also contributes to waste, transportation, and energy consumption. 

“Today’s food supply chain creates ~13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents” (Poore & Nemecek, 2018)

Transportation. This is an issue that can be minimized and hopefully fixed if more people shop locally. Transporting food for livestock AND consumers internationally and domestically has led to more greenhouse gases being emitted from planes, trains, and trucks. These contribute to food’s carbon footprint and are in no way sustainable for distributing food (Eshel et al., 2014). For these reasons, shopping locally can be the start of a major change.

“People should acknowledge that short-distance purchases would limit transportation energy and contribute to fair trade by direct sales from farmers to consumers” (Lairon, 2012).

In recent years the pressure to reduce energy consumption for food production has been growing. More people are advocating for renewable energy and carbon-neutral companies. Energy costs have also increased, so companies have been more inclined to search for energy-efficient practices (Scardigno, 2020). Energy consumption and water use are target categories for improvement for all manufacturing and transportation of foods, including, but not limited to, fruits and vegetables, sugars, meat, dairy, and beverages such as beer and wine. For maximum energy efficiency in food production and water use, there are multifaceted approaches to reaching this goal. These include examining water allocation, ways to reuse water, irrigation techniques, and energy-efficient production and packing of foods (Marston et al., 2018). 

Water use affects energy consumption due to the amount of water needed for crops, livestock, and the overall production of food and beverages. Freshwater is used for food production and it is a non-renewable source, meaning there is a limited number of sources for it. There are three categories of water: green, blue, and grey. Green water’s source is rainfall and aids in soil moisture (Marston et al., 2020). Blue water’s source is surface and groundwater and is primarily used for irrigation (Marston et al., 2020).  Greywater refers to the water that is polluted by food production, such as synthetic fertilizers. Examining these three categories of water and optimizing crop distribution to utilize green water over blue water (to reduce greywater) is an effective way to reuse and conserve water. 

“As agriculture accounts for the vast majority of society’s freshwater demand (Hoekstra), there is a growing need for creative yet practical approaches to address the massive water footprint of crop production” (Davis et al., 2017).

Recap:

  • The production, transportation, energy consumption, and water use are some elements that have an impact on the environment
  • Energy-efficient production and agriculture will help
  • Allocation of water and optimal water use for crops will help

*BBC has a great food calculator for GHG emissions*

Reference List

Eshel, G., Shepon, A., Makov T., Milo R., (2014). Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and  reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 111(33), 11996–12001. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1402183111

Davis, K., Rulli, M., Seveso, A., & D’Odorico, P. (2017). Increased food production and reduced water use through optimized crop distribution. Nature Geoscience,10(12), 919–924. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-017-0004-5

Lairon D. (2012). Sustainable diets and biodiversity. In: Burlingame B and Dernini S (eds) Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity- Directions, Solutions for Policy, Research and Action. Rome: FAO, pp, pp. 29–35.Hoekstra, A. Y. &

Mekonnen, M. M. The water footprint of humanity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 3232–3237 (2012).

Marston, L., Ao, Y., Konar, M., Mekonnen, M., & Hoekstra, A. (2018). High‐Resolution Water Footprints of Production of the United States. Water Resources Research, 54(3), 2288–2316. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017wr021923

Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 360(6392), 987–992. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaq0216

Scardigno, A. (2020). New solutions to reduce water and energy consumption in  crop production: A water–energy–food nexus perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, 13, 11–15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coesh.2019.09.007

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