Our dietary habits and ways of food production have had vastly negative impacts on the natural environment.
That is hardly news, but it’s worth restating how bad they are for the environment: Not only do agriculture and animal husbandry contribute considerably to global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are also primary causes of deforestation, freshwater pollution and biodiversity loss. Beef production is especially harmful.
Meanwhile, food waste has reached massive proportions across the planet with much of the food produced then wasted. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, between 25% to 30% of all the food that is produced winds up being lost or wasted worldwide.
Wasted and lost food account for as much as a 10th of all our greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC says in a new report. In the EU alone, around 88 million tons of food is wasted every year. The economic costs of that are also considerable with some €143 billion lost in the process.
“Technical options such as improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail and education can reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain,” the IPCC notes.
Common farming practices also leave much to be desired. “The biggest hurdle we face is to try and teach about half a billion farmers globally to re-work their agricultural model to be carbon sensitive,” says Andre Laperrière, executive director of Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition in Oxford, in the UK.
A decision by consumers can help mitigate the environmental effects of food production: transitioning to a plant-based diet.
Whereas meat tends to remain a treat for many people in poorer nations around the world, in richer nations people consume, and waste, vast amounts of beef, pork and chicken. “We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” says Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.
“But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect,” he adds.
Much of the meat that is consumed in rich nations is produced in poor nations where deforestation is reaching alarming levels as a result. In Brazil, for instance, cattle farming is leading to yet more deforestation in the rainforests of the Amazon, which could soon be depleted to an ecological point of no return.
Yet Brazil’s government is resisting global calls to stop the wanton clearing of the country’s forests. “Unfortunately, some countries don’t seem to understand the dire need of stopping deforestation in the tropics,” Pörtner observes. “We cannot force any government to interfere. But we hope that our report will sufficiently influence public opinion to that effect.”
Consumers can also make a difference by making informed decisions in their dietary choices. By consuming less beef or none at all, for instance, they can place market pressures on beef producers.
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