KN Green Week: Eating the Environment Better

7 May 2019

The aim of this blog is not to point the finger and attribute blame to people who eat meat, mangos and Manchego. I myself am far from perfect, and am fully aware that I need to re-evaluate my relationship with cheese and stop eating so many avocados. What this blog is intended to do, however, is to make us all think about, and be aware of, where our food comes from, the impact that food production has on the environment, and what we should be doing to reduce that impact.  

My Tussle with Vegetarianism/Veganism

I’ve been a vegetarian for just over three years now, and can comfortably say that I never see myself eating meat again.  My motive for becoming vegetarian was predominantly based on animal rights issues, and less about the environment.  However, I’ve since become aware that the production of certain foods (specifically meat and dairy) is not only ethically questionable, but also places a significant burden upon the planet’s resources. 

Looking at the issue through this lens, I’ve started re-evaluating my relationship with vegetarianism and leaning much more heavily towards a vegan diet (or, if you like, the more trendily named ‘plant based’ diet).  I like to think that by eating no meat and much less dairy, I’m doing my bit for the environment, and eventually see myself becoming vegan for good.   That said, although we should all be aiming to eat less meat and dairy, it isn’t quite as simple as that.  There is so much more that we can all be doing when it comes to food, and this blog takes a look at what some of those things are – namely:

  1. Eating what we buy;
  2. Eating fewer animal products;
  3. Eating more fruit and vegetables;
  4. Eating local and seasonal produce. 

Facts and Figures

  • We are currently growing 5,940 calories of food per person per day, but only need 2,350 per day (taking into account different ages, genders and lifestyles);
  • Of the surplus calories, around 1,320 calories of food are lost or wasted; 810 calories are used as biofuels, and 1,740 calories are fed to animals;
  • Livestock provides just 18% of our calories and 37% of protein, but takes up 83% of farmland, produces 58% of greenhouse gas emissions, 57% of water pollution and 56% of air pollution (see here).

Meat and Dairy

It’s been suggested that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce the impact we’re having on the Earth - not just in relation to greenhouse gases, but also for global acidification, eutrophication, land and water use.  Statistics show that 27 kg of CO2 is generated for every kilo of beef produced, compared to just 0.9kg of CO2 for a kilo of lentils.  And according to the WWF, there are around 270 million dairy cows in the world, all of which impact the environment in numerous ways.

To be clear, the message is not that we should be cutting out meat and dairy completely.  Simply reducing the amount of meat we eat can make a huge difference – with one study suggesting that if Europeans eat 77% less red meat, this would help reduce the impact livestock farming has on climate change, the destruction of wildlife, and the pollution of rivers and oceans. 

…but what about protein?

A commonly held misconception is that meat is one of the best sources of protein.   It is not.  Farmed animals destroy nearly three quarters of the protein they eat, most of which is in the form of human-edible food.  It is therefore much more efficient to eat protein directly from its source – i.e.  soya beans, which gram for gram contain more of almost every human essential nutrient than beef or lamb.  The soya bean currently has a very bad rep, being blamed (along with palm oil production) for much of the world’s deforestation.  But we mustn’t blame the soya bean, as the problem comes only when they are grown for cows and sheep. Why?  Because when you feed a soya bean to a cow or sheep, you only get about a tenth of its goodness back in meat.  So, by diverting protein rich foods away from the animals we eat, and directly in to our own mouths, this would maximise the amount of protein available for human consumption (and minimise the amount of soya beans we have to grow). 

In the past, when I’ve dallied in a bit of veganism, I’ve found this fact sheet from the Association of British Dieticians really helpful in knowing which foods to eat to get my protein, iron, zinc, etc.  Generally, though, if you’re following a meat free diet but continuing to eat some animal products as part of a balanced diet, you should find you’re getting the right amount of everything.  

Eating Sustainably, Seasonally and Locally

Eco-friendly eating isn’t just about reducing meat and dairy.  Producing food for 7.53 billion people is obviously going to pay its toll on the environment, so we need to start thinking not only about the amount of food we consume, but also about what’s in our food and where it’s coming from. 

Many of us will have heard about the impact that palm oil is having on our rainforests, and are hopefully aware of the need to avoid it, where possible.  But there are plenty of other environmental nemeses that we should be wary of, specifically foods that are flown in from across the world – including fruit and veg flown from overseas, and other regional specialities that can’t be grown or produced in the UK.   Transporting food by aeroplane is when things really start to become unsustainable.  Indeed, as Berners-Lee put it, “there is no place for air freighted food in the twenty first century”. 

In comparison, transportation of food by boat (even from the other side of the world) can enable a relatively sustainable food supply – and in fact, may even be more sustainable than buying tomatoes grown in an energy-intensive greenhouse in the UK in the middle of winter.  

Despite being armed with this knowledge, it can be very difficult to know how your food has arrived at your local supermarket.  And until there is a legal requirement for this information to be printed on food labels, you can check the food’s country of origin and consider whether it has the longevity to survive a journey by ship, train or lorry.  (For example – a banana typically does have the longevity, while strawberries and grapes do not).  Remember also to factor in the time of year when looking at products grown in the UK.  A useful tool for finding out what food is in season can be found here – which even includes some tasty recipe inspiration.      

Thinking about what we’re eating doesn’t have to be difficult, but it is something we should all be doing, and doing now – for a healthier planet, a healthier life, and (depending where you shop) – maybe even a healthier wallet!  Hopefully this blog will have inspired you to give some thought to what you’re eating - and maybe even convinced you to become a ‘meat reducer’, a ‘vegetarian’, someone who follows a ‘plant based diet’ – or even a full on ‘vegan’.  But whatever you refer to yourself as – do it proudly, because you’re doing your bit to save the planet.    

and finally…

If you’re interested in calculating the carbon footprint of your diet, here is a helpful calculator.  You can also use this useful website to work out how much water is involved in the production of certain foods.

Statistics taken from the book – “There is No Planet B” by Mike Berners-Lee

KN Green Week blogs:

  1. Friday 3 May - Climate change and the individual: Where to begin… by starting to ask the right questions
  2. Wednesday 8 May - Plastic Packaging – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
  3. Thursday 9 May - Confessions of a (mostly) reformed ‘Shopaholic’
  4. Friday 10 May - Can law help save the world?

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