Our food system isn’t compatible with the environment, here’s why

The Energy and transport sectors are the culprits that first come into mind at the mention of climate change and environmental degradation. But then why is it that the food industry is rarely mentioned, when it actually accounts for a quarter of the global greenhouse gas emissions?  We all know that food is essential to life, however, the food we produce and consume has a significant impact on the environment, yet barely any discussions have been made over the importance of food and its role in global warming. The students of the European School of Brussels I have looked into several aspects of the industry and its impact both on an international as well as on a local level. The aim of the article is to explore the systemic issues linked to food behind climate change thanks to interviews and thorough research. We will therefore explore consequences and solutions to this issue, by looking at overconsumption, food waste and the carbon footprint of everything we consume but also inform ourselves on solutions such as locally resourcing our food and restricting our animal product intake. 

 The first issue we will be addressing is the one of foodstuff overconsumption. The main cause of this mass phenomenon is global economic growth where, the more a country is developed, the bigger the demand for goods, especially those of animal origin.  In parallel, the growing population of a country also results in an increasing demand. Therefore, developed countries (HICs) with a growing population, such as the United States, are the ones who over-consume the most, causing serious environmental damage on the long term. Moreover, the systemic issue of consumerism culture, which has grown more prominent through the decades as new forms of media emerge, only encourages this overconsumption. This marketing strategy, applicable to all sorts of goods, aims to pressure the customers into believing that purchasing certain products will personally fulfil them and therefore, validate them before society’s eyes. 

 However, this habit comes at a cost, one of extreme water usage as well as greenhouse gas emissions. It is important to note that food isn’t created equal – it takes an awful lot more water to produce a bit less than 500g of beef as opposed to what it takes to produce the same amount of lentils, a common plant – based alternative. Therefore, as it has been proven countless times that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause significantly more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetables and grains growing, it is extremely advisable to modify one’s diet accordingly. And though « Veganism and vegetarianism isn’t for everyone, reducing red meat consumption to once a week can make a big difference ». If everyone stopped consuming meat for just one day, for a country like the U.S, it would save 100 billion gallons of water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide. The problem with the overproduction and overconsumption of these products isn’t only sourced in their excessive greenhouse gas production but also the alarming rate at which natural resources are being depleted. The severity of the case manifests itself as what has been named ‘Earth overshoot day’ – a yearly date that marks humanity living beyond the planet’s ecological capacity. 

Meat consumption is destroying the planet and causing a ...

The second big issue being discussed is a direct consequence of overconsumption: food waste. Whilst 1/9 of the population lives in scarcity, about one third of global food production is currently wasted. In the EU, around 88 million tons of food waste are generated annually with associated costs estimated at 143 billion euros. As previously mentioned, the production of food impacts the environment, not only through greenhouse gas emissions, but also through the exploitation of land and water or the use of chemical products such as fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. Taking into account that one third of this food goes to waste, 1/12 global greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided if we were to solely produce what we consumed. Furthermore, the food wasted that ends up in landfills generates elevated emissions of methane (recorded as being 28 times stronger than CO2) and numerous other environmental problems such as land and water pollution. However, it must be clarified that the majority of food waste is generated in the production and distribution process and lost even before it reaches the consumer. 

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In this case, the only realistic solution is a drastic change in the system, not only on an industrial level but on a personal one as well. Each household can make an effort to contain this problem by being mindful of their purchases by planning their meals, pay attention to the expiration date of products or applying FIFO (First In First Out) which is a method implying that products bought first should be disposed of first. It is also important to raise awareness on apps such as ‘Too good to go’ in which one can collect ingredients and meals from local stores at a discounted price. We greatly believe that these small changes could already make a difference, all there is to do is take the initiative! 

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Moving on, when interviewed for the purpose of this article, the engaged EEB1 geography teacher mentioned ‘I think it is important that we look at aspects to where food comes from, food miles or food kilometres…’. These terms refer to the distance food products travelled before reaching the consumer. This issue is responsible for great emissions of greenhouse gases as well as air pollution. Furthermore, the “food mile” can also be associated with the known issue of plastic packaging. Looking from Europe’s point of view, a lot of the food products which have a high traveling distance come from lower income countries in different continents. This causes not only the products to travel thousands of kilometres, but producers also tend to choose the cheapest packaging possible as travel costs are already important. Unfortunately, today, the cheapest way to pack products is plastic which is known to be highly pollutant as it is more often thrown away in landfills or is carried along with wind and ends up in the oceans. 

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As a response to try and lower our individual “food miles” and perhaps even single use plastic packaging– consuming local food (food that has been grown within 160 km from the consumer) and that one in season is greatly recommended. It significantly reduces the emissions whilst supporting local economy and smaller food businesses. Moreover, urban agriculture is a concept that has grown in popularity over the past years. It consists in cultivating food directly in urban areas such as on community gardens or rooftops, a solution that has proved itself to be very efficient. 

Considering everything mentioned in this article, we can easily conclude that our food system is significantly flawed in terms of sustainability, partly implying that we are using resources at rates that exceed the Earth’s capacity to replace them. In fact, in many regions including Europe, food production is exceeding environmental limits or is close to doing so. We have to stop “eating” our future, change is needed! As the manager of our school’s canteen stated during an interview, “we need to change the way we produce and what we produce”.  

To address the climate crisis, we must create an environmentally sustainable and future-oriented food system. To achieve this goal, we would like to highlight the following priority actions: reduce overconsumption, minimize food waste and plastic packaging, reduce the consumption of food products with a high environmental and carbon footprint (mainly meat and dairy) and promote local food sources, urban agriculture and awareness raising.

Written by:
Redaction: Leonie Gauthier-Lafaye, Ines Bonhomme(+interviews), Cristina Jimenez Perlarda (deputy of green group), Noémi Toth

Data collection: Alexandra Witoldson Daca (+interviews), Wiktoria Busz, Mia Kelly-Tychtl

Interviews: Oscar Mc Glynn, Altea Patanè, Benjamin Haitsma, Borna Batarilo