In a study conducted in 2016, the UN concluded that:
- 800 million people are chronically undernourished.
- 159 million children under five years of age have stunted growth.
- 2 billion people are affected by micronutrient deficiencies.
At the same time, it was noted that the incidence of excessive weight and obesity (in both adults and children) was on the rise in all regions across the globe.
Every food is part of a complex system that includes raising and harvesting the plants and animals, processing, packaging, distribution, consumption and waste disposal. Our current food system not only fails to nourish people adequately, it is also a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, pollution, fossil fuel consumption, and biodiversity loss.
These shortcomings of the global food system coupled with the risks surrounding climate change present many challenges, all with no single cause and no single solution. They also present us all with an opportunity to figure out how to eat in a way that is good for our health, good for the environment, and that supports a food system that is ethical, sustainable and compassionate.
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There are four simple ways to transition towards a so-called "sustainable diet".
First, we can reduce food waste. It is estimated that approximately one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. Every player in the food system has an impact on these numbers: producers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers can all do their bit. Historically, food waste has increased in line with rises in income and urbanization, so more attention will need to be paid to food waste in the future if we are to achieve a sustainable food system.
Second, we can reduce overconsumption. Overconsumption, and the negative health outcomes associated with it, is encouraged by the cheap, calorie-dense nature of ultra-processed food. But diets that lack diversity and fail to provide adequate nutrition can lead to malnutrition, even in the context of excess calories. Of course, fresh foods do tend to be more expensive and not as readily available, but that doesn't mean we have no options. Simply switching a couple of meals a week for more healthful, whole options will result in less total calories consumed.
Third, we can eat more vegetables. Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is an important component of the shift towards healthier and more sustainable diets, and it is an idea that is gaining momentum. For example, restaurants and food chains now offer more plant-based alternatives. This seems to drive up demand and create a positive feedback loop: people become more curious and open to plant-based alternatives and affordable access to a variety of vegetables starts to seem possible for all.
Finally, we can be mindful of meat consumption.
As the world's population continues to increase, so will demand for meat. Not only because there will be more humans on the planet but also because economies are growing and more people can afford it, especially in developing countries. However, this will have consequences.
The World Resources Institute has calculated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing a gram of edible protein of various foods. According to their data, foods such as beans, lentils, fish, nuts, and eggs have the lowest impact. Poultry, pork, milk, and cheese have medium-sized impacts. The biggest impacts, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), were linked to the production of beef, lamb and goat.
But it's not only about GHG emissions. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock sector is the largest user of agricultural land globally and its prevailing methods of industrial meat production contribute greatly to biodiversity loss and water degradation.
On top of this, there are health concerns around the overconsumption of meat. For example, it is linked to rising rates of hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and obesity around the world. There is also evidence that the overuse of pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics is contributing to antibiotic resistance in livestock, which poses a further health risk to humans. Finally, it is hard to ignore that factory farming is particularly cruel: animals are confined into small spaces, fattened up rapidly using grains and slaughtered on huge production lines.
In wealthier countries, and in particular in North America where people eat a lot of meat, reducing meat consumption has long been advised, mostly for health reasons. But in recent years the discussion has begun to consider the environmental implications, too. The reasoning is: less meat consumption means less land and resources devoted to livestock production, which means less fertilizer and less greenhouse gas emissions.
However, consuming less meat and dairy doesn’t necessarily mean turning vegetarian or vegan. Even though veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise in many countries, the numbers practicing it are relatively small. It also does not seem realistic to think that the world will stop consuming meat anytime soon. Which means we need to find a compromise.
Eating more plants and plant-based products to make up for nutrients and calories lost from meat consumption has always been an option. Meat alternatives like soy-based products have also been in the market for decades.
This surge in other meat alternatives has the potential to reduce the consumption of meat per capita by appealing to those that enjoy eating meat and would only replace it for something that can compete with meat on flavor and texture. Two particular meat alternatives have amassed a lot of attention (and money) in recent years:
a) Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are using biochemistry to create plant-based products that mimic the experience of eating meat. Their products look, taste, smell and even bleed like real meat, but no animals are harmed in production and equivalent protein is provided. These meatless meat products are already available in large food chains in the US and Canada, like Burger King, Qdoba, del Taco, A&W, and Tim Hortons. Other major meat companies like Purdue Farms and Tyson Foods are launching meatless products. There are also companies creating plant-based alternatives to chicken and eggs.
b) The development of lab-grown meat (or cultured meat) remains in a largely developmental phase but it is benefiting from a growing amount of investment globally. Several teams of scientists and businesses are working on producing lab-created meat which they claim will be healthier than conventional meat and more environmentally friendly. There are still many unanswered questions regarding the energy requirements to produce cultured meat, its health benefits and its acceptability to consumers, but they are in the process of being answered.
The final alternative is to eat less meat, as opposed to giving it up completely or replacing it entirely. Perhaps aim for two or three meals a week without meat?
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To address the growing social, health and environmental challenges caused by our food systems, global populations need to move towards dietary patterns and make food choices that are diverse, nutritious as well as environmentally viable. This is the only way to develop a food system that balances human health and sustainability. As it stands, we are making some progress.
- Global institutions and policy makers continue to work on methods for reducing food inequality. Public policies that can be implemented throughout the production chain to improve human and environmental health are currently being explored.
- Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the effect of their food choices on their own health and on the environment, and they are changing the food industry through the power of their spending.
- In Canada and the US, for example, meat producers are working on reducing their carbon footprint, reducing water and energy consumption, using fewer antibiotics, and recovering and recycling waste.
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Transitioning to a more sustainable food system requires a concentrated effort from collectives and individuals across the world. As consumers, we can create change in our own kitchens. We can reduce waste, eat more vegetables, avoid overconsumption, and be mindful of our meat intake. It doesn't seem like much, but it is what will eventually lead to sustainable shifts in the global food system.