How sustainable are our diets? Leonie Joubert focuses on the environmental impact of the food Capetonians eat in chapter 4 of The Food Dialogues Report.
Every calorie of food we grow, harvest, ship, process, package, chill, cook, eat and throw away uses up resources from the environment: the soil and its nutrients, water, fertiliser, fuel, and so on. It also impacts on the environment by using its waste-absorbing systems: fertiliser runoff pollutes our rivers, ploughing up land eats into grasslands and wetlands, and shunting carbon emissions into the air drives up temperatures and alters the regional climate.
We need to think carefully about how we grow our food and what kinds of food we choose to eat, if we want to tackle core issues of how sustainable our diets are.
The big offenders: Meat and dairy
The industrial-scale farming of meat, dairy and poultry is not sustainable. It usually means animals are kept in confined feedlots, and are raised on foods they’re not evolved to eat. Cows are grass eaters; chickens forage for seeds, bugs, worms and the likes; pigs are omnivores.
Most of these animals are fed grain in the mass farming system. Not only is this diet unnatural for them, but growing grain for this purpose uses up land that could be used to grow a greater and more appropriate diversity of crops. The conversion rate of grain calories to meat calories is also very inefficient.
The scale of animal farming also has considerable environmental impact in terms of transforming landscapes, water usage and pollution in the form of greenhouse gases (mostly from burping ruminants and manure). The animals often have to be dosed up heavily with antibiotics to avoid diseases common in such overcrowded conditions.
‘The World Health Organisation is really worried about this overuse of antibiotics,’ says Compassion in World Farming’s Tony Gerrans. ‘The World Health Organisation says we’re just 15 years away from a post-antibiotic environment. Diseases spreading from industrial farming are going to become a significant public health issue.’
Facts worth remembering:
- The Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota says that 55% of food-crop calories go directly towards nourishing people, while 40% of the world’s cereal harvest is used to feed animals.
- According to Prof Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, every 100 calories of grain fed to animals gives us only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork or three of beef.
- The US Centre for Energy and Environmental Studies states that ‘producing 1kg of beef requires 15 times as much land as producing 1kg of cereals, and 70 times as much land as 1kg of vegetables’.
- ‘100 calories of animal feed produces as few as 17 calories of meat and dairy products,’ says the United Nations Environment Programme in its 2013 report ‘The Environmental Food Crisis.’
The 2010 UNESCO report ‘Energy Smart Food for People and Climate’, states that it takes over 15 000 litres of water on average to produce a kilogram of beef, compared to around 1 200 litres for 1kg of maize and 1 800 litres for 1kg of wheat.
As communities become wealthier and more industrialised, we tend to increase our meat, dairy and egg consumption. This means the environmental footprint of our diet increases. The root of the problem is the industrial scale at which modern agriculture is trying to meet this growing need.
‘When livestock are raised in intensive systems,’ says the FAO’s ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World’, ‘they convert carbohydrates and protein that might otherwise be eaten directly by humans and use them to produce a smaller quantity of energy and protein. In these situations, livestock can be said to reduce the food balance.’
Tony argues that we need to change the entire economic model driving industrial-scale farming, which overlooks the costs to animals, the people handling them, our own health and the environment.
Put out animals back on to pasture
This isn’t a call to cut out meat, dairy and eggs completely, but to change the way we farm the animals that provide us with important food, and to eat more diverse diets. We need to do this for three reasons: it’s better for our health; it’s better for the health and well-being of the animals; and it’s what South African soils are best equipped to do.
According to a WWF report on agriculture in South Africa, only one third of the country’s soils (12% of the total area) are fertile enough for crop production, compared with 69% of the country that is suited to grazing. So it makes sense to rear livestock on the veld, which is a more ethical and environmentally sound way of rearing animals. As Tony points out, these animals evolved roaming and grazing on the veld.
It’s also better for our heart health. In most of our food crops, the leaves are high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which we need a lot of; seeds are higher in Omega 6 fatty acids, which we need fewer of. Grass-fed animals, in turn, will have higher Omega 3s in their meat, milk and eggs, while grain-fed animals have higher levels of Omega 6s. We need more O3s and fewer O6s in our diet for optimal heart health.
Call to action: consumer power
The consumer has the power to change the market, merely by making certain choices:
- Eat less meat. Try a meat- free Monday. Use meat to flavour food rather than as the main portion of the meal. Don’t be afraid of less conventional meat cuts and offal (a delicious soup made using bones gets the goodness of the marrow and ensures there is less wastage of the animal carcass, for instance).
- Try to eat meat, dairy and eggs from free range and pasture-raised animals. This will encourage suppliers to stock ethical products, while supporting ethical producers and encouraging others to change their farming practices. In doing so we can work towards more accessible ethical sources on a larger scale so they are not only available to wealthy consumers.
- Pay attention to product labelling.
- Educate others.
- Support local producers, especially small-scale and organic farmers, as well as informal traders selling fresh produce.
But what about starch?
The problem with grains, potato and other starchy staple foods is that they form the basis of the urban diet that’s high in refined and processed foods, which are high in energy but low in micronutrients.
The scales of economy of industrial food processing means these foods are cheap, so we choose them over other healthier whole foods. They are also often tasty and addictive, and have a long shelf life, which is what cities need when our food must travel so far from farm to fork, and then sit on the shelves for a long time. This is part of the very diet that’s making us fat and sick.
Now consider all the hidden costs of this diet – the environmental costs of bulk farming of starch for such foods, and the health costs of a diet that leads to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and even dementia – and the real costs of this ‘cheap’ and ethically more dubious diet also begins to look unacceptably high and unsustainable.
The industrial food system means we are taking good wholesome calories from the farm – calories that were environmentally costly to produce because of all the natural resources they used – and are putting them through an industrial food processing system that refines them, strips them of their nutrients and leaves us eating large quantities of ‘dead’ calories. This is another wasteful use of the soil, water, atmospheric space and other environmental resources that were needed to grow the food.
Fat, protein and carbs: searching for the balance
Many leading health institutions are calling for a review of the United States dietary guidelines that have informed food policy and nutritional advice for over three decades. The guidelines give us the so-called ‘prudent diet’ food pyramid: lots of grain-based carbohydrates, vegetables, moderate amounts of protein and very limited fat.
Now, the Harvard School of Public Health and many others are redrawing the food pyramid, calling for a significant reduction in the quantity and type of carbohydrates we eat, and a return to fat, including limited amounts of saturated fats.
While the protein portion of the diet should remain the same, increasing fat means a return to plant fats such as those found in nuts, avocado pear and coconut oil. It also puts butter and animal fat back on the table.
What does this mean for the sustainability of our diet, though, if we are being urged to increase some of our animal product intake?
Investigative journalist Nina Teicholz, in her book The Big Fat Surprise, shows why medical institutions like those at Harvard are now dispelling what’s been dubbed ‘the low-fat myth’. In doing so, she concludes her book by reflecting on the ethical and environmental challenges that come with a call to return to animal fats in the diet:
‘The environmental questions… are complicated: cows produce methane, which contributes to greenhouse gasses, and they consume a relatively large amount of resources, compared to growing fruits and vegetables, but red meat may be more nutrient-dense per unit of resources consumed and it also provides necessary nutrients not found in plant foods.
‘So it’s possible that the greater good health enjoyed by a nation eating more meat might save on healthcare costs, thereby evening out the overall ledger. And as a thought experiment: What if we return to eating tallow and lard again, thereby deducting the demand we place on our land to grow the soybean, rapeseed, cottonseed, safflower and cord that are expressed into vegetable oils?’
City bylaws and the ‘scourge’ of livestock
The city has strict controls over keeping farm animals and poultry in residential areas, making livestock farming even at a small-scale difficult. But the manure, particularly from cows, is the most viable source of compost and nutrients for small food gardeners. Rob Small of Abalimi argues that the city should be encouraged to loosen up its restrictions on tending livestock in order to keep this important part of the farm system in place for small local farmers.
Waste not, want not
A third of all food produced around the world goes to waste. In some wealthier communities, it’s as much as half. That’s not just a waste of the calories and nutrients in the food, but it’s a waste of all the environmental resources that went into growing that food, and of the waste- absorbing capacity of the environment when that food rots.
At the same time, one in five South Africans go hungry every day. When food and other organic waste goes into a landfill, it rots in the confines of this low-oxygen space and releases the potent greenhouse gas, methane. All the nutrients in that ‘waste’ are also lost. If food that is still safe to eat gets thrown out by either retailers or private households, that’s food that could otherwise be used by people struggling to access food.
If we want our cities to be more resilient, we need to change the ‘linear’ movement of food to become ‘circular’: food ‘waste’ coming out the bottom end of the food value chain must be fed back into the top through appropriate recycling.
Food forward – the province responds
The Western Cape Government recently launched the Food Forward project under the 110% Green Initiative. The aim is to address food waste and loss by reducing inefficiencies within the food value chain.
Part of the process is to take tours across the province to highlight issues along the food value chain. These will include organisations that are actively involved with food waste issues, such as industry associations, research institutions, agri-producers, food processors, distributors, retailers and waste handlers.
‘The idea is to get businesses and organisations to commit to tackle an aspect of the food waste problem, whether this is a reduction of food waste, an increase in their own food waste responsibility, or simply adding a piece to the food waste research puzzle,’ explains the Province’s Nicholas Wiid.
‘Through visiting certain municipalities, we hope to learn from others, thereby mobilising stakeholders in the food space to adopt more efficient systems. One way to do this would be to link stakeholders with each other, in order to minimise food losses, wastage and sending valuable compostable material to landfill.’
Read more from the Food Dialogues Report
- Food security: Why city layout matters
- Food shopping: A guide for the flummoxed
- Food sovereignty: Politics and veggies in Cape Town
- Food culture: A city is what it eats
- Food gardens: The secret to success
- Food nutrition: The real cost of bad eating
- Food ecosystem: Greening up our plates
- Nutritious food? Why money matters
This article first appeared in the the Food Dialogues Report. Click on the link to download the PDF (36mb), or flip through it on Issuu.