9 December 2020
Recipe: How to Eat More Sustainably
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Efforts to achieve two SDGs that are relevant to food systems – zero hunger (SDG 2) and climate action (SDG 13) – can have negative impacts on each other.

We need to find ways to decrease carbon emissions while increasing our food supply; a good place to start is learning about the GHG emissions embodied in different food choices and making food choices that incorporate this information into our diets.

By Siri Grund

Over one quarter of all the world’s greenhouse gases (GHGs) are caused by our food systems, and the constant increase in the world’s population means this number is only going to grow. However, efforts to address this global challenge could negatively progress towards another global challenge.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 by all countries in the United Nations address poverty, health, education, and inequality issues while also dealing with climate change and preserving oceans and forests. In many cases, efforts to achieve one SDG will positively impact other SDGs as well. However, efforts to achieve two SDGs that are relevant to food systems – zero hunger (SDG 2) and climate action (SDG 13) – can have negative impacts on each other.

When consumers select foods that embody fewer GHGs than other options, they show there is money to be made by producing food sustainably.

If we want to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” (SDG 2), our options to “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” (SDG 13) at the same time need careful consideration. In short, we need to find ways to decrease our carbon emissions while increasing our food supply. 

Step 1: Understand Impact of Livestock in Global Emissions

Numbers and data can be very helpful for understanding the scope of this issue. Of the GHGs caused by food production, 31% is caused by livestock and fisheries. This means that 8.06% of our global GHGs come from methane produced by cows, manure and pasture management, and the use of fuel in catching fish. It is unlikely that the livestock industry will ever cease to exist, as it provides jobs and food in places where other sources are not available.

At the same time, consumers who have the ability to make dietary changes without causing harm to their wellbeing have a responsibility to learn how the food they eat affects the environment. While the most impactful steps to achieve the SDGs will come from industry-wide changes, individuals can drive these changes. When consumers select foods that produce fewer GHGs than other options, they show there is money to be made by producing food sustainably. 

Step 2: Increase Consumption of Plant-Based Food

Understanding the connection between food choices and the environment is the first step. The next question is where to start to make diets more environmentally sustainable. The best thing that an individual can do is to cut out, or at least decrease, their consumption of animal products.

One reason why animal products are less sustainable is that it can be more efficient “to grow crops for humans to eat than it is to grow crops for animals to eat and then turn those animals into food for humans,” according to a New York Times report. Protein sources vary widely in how much GHG is emitted from their production. For example:

  • Nuts: 0.3 kg CO2 equivalents per kg
  • Poultry: 6 kg CO2 equivalents per kg
  • Beef: 60 kg C02 equivalents per kg

Reducing one’s consumption of animal products is a good jumping off point because eating sustainably does not need to be “all or nothing.” Even making choices among various animal products can have an impact: it is more environmentally sustainable to eat poultry meat, which produces only one-tenth of the GHG emissions that beef does. The animal products with the highest GHG emissions are red meat and cheese, so reducing consumption of these two types of food can be a big step in reducing an individual’s carbon footprint.

The SDGs identify global objectives, but what should we do when efforts to achieve one goal could impact our efforts to achieve another goal? The first step for a recipe to achieve both SDG 2 and SDG 13 at the same time is to learn about the GHG emissions embodied in different food choices. The second step is to make food choices that incorporate this information into your diet. 

This Generation 2030 article was authored by Siri Grund, a 12th grade student in northern Virginia, US. She wrote this article as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project through the Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital. She is also tweeting about the links between food choices and climate change.

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