Simple Steps Towards Sustainability Anyone Can Start
Sustainability is a current topic that is on many people’s minds – as it probably should be. More and more people are seeing the impact global warming has on our lives daily, and unfortunately, we are only at the tip of the continuously-melting-iceberg.
The fact of the matter is time is limited for us to make impactful change for the climate. There are many things one can do in their lives to try to enact positive change, but perhaps the biggest thing you as a consumer can change for the planet is the food at your table or in your fridge.
This blog post is not about doom and gloom. Nor will I tell you veganism or another diet is mandatory. Instead, I hope to spread information and try to encourage you, the reader, into thinking critically about what you can do as a shopper to reduce your carbon footprint.
Before writing, I worked in a number of restaurant kitchens. Many of them steakhouses. Any restaurant will have large volumes of food moving out of the kitchen, and lots of that food will, unfortunately, get thrown out. Anything overcooked? Thrown out. Anything left on the plates? The same. Even food that has been kept in the back nearing expiry will surely get thrown out in many restaurants, despite more and more programs that are trying to avoid unnecessary food waste.
Yet all this never phased me: my first job was in this industry; it was all I knew. Questions of sustainability had been brought up, and I remember restaurants I worked in making changes to improve sustainability, like introducing paper straws. But one day, discussing why lobster shipments were changing in the kitchen, it was asked why the change had ever been made. This was a defining moment for my ideals of sustainability.
The answer was that all the previous lobster population was no more. Overfished. Gone.
The company was not solely responsible for the overfishing of the lobster supply. Other companies serving shellfish from the same fisher, the fishing crews, and the consumers all play a roll in the ecological impact the supply chain of food creates. With the consideration of the climate, the demand of consumers is unsustainable, but if the public consciousness begins to consider the sustainability of what we eat, widespread change becomes possible.
Jump ahead a couple years. I’m working thanklessly at a different job in a different field and I’m in need of a change. Like many Canadians during the pandemic, I had a lot of free time that I frequently spent in the kitchen. I had always pushed off changing my diet significantly due to the perceived difficulty of such an action. Additionally, I did not want to sacrifice eating foods that I loved. That was absolutely off limits, and to me, Fried Chicken is gospel.
But as I did research, I realized that large, sweeping changes involved with vegetarianism and veganism are not as important as simply cutting back was. As I learned about the environmental impact of beef cattle, and of meat industries as a whole, I understood that humanities current eating habits are currently unsustainable, and any amount of reduction helps.
I was surprised how easy it was to change my diet for the purpose of sustainability, and I hope by sharing some key information that impacted my dietary change to a more sustainable, plant-based diet, you might understand better what you can do as a consumer to help improve the sustainability of the food systems.
Ways to become more eco-friendly
Making sustainable food choices
According to the IPCC, emissions associated with global food production alone make up between 21% to 37% of all climate change-related problems. As highlighted in the chart below from OurWorldInData.com, our global eating habits have a significant contribution to the environmental issues we face today – and not all foods are equal in that regard. Beef, lamb, cheese, even coffee and chocolate – all foods that carry a significant impact on the environment in terms of emissions and land-use change.
However, greenhouse emissions from most plant-based products are significantly lower.
Beef stands out significantly as the biggest food that is a detriment to the planet: for every kilogram of beef produced from a beef heard, 60kg of greenhouse gases are emitted into the environment – that rate of carbon emissions is twice as high as lamb, ten times higher than chicken, and on average ten to fifty times higher than plant-based food sources.
The production of beef is so significant to the environment for several reasons. First, cows are big animals, which means cows need to eat a lot. According to a video collaboration between Vox and the University of California, the billion tonnes of grains that farmers feed cows every year could feed 3.5 billion humans.
Secondly, cows and sheep are ruminant animals: their digestion process involves a process called enteric fermentation, where tough to digest plant materials eaten by cows and other ruminant animals get broken down in the microbe-rich stomachs of the animal. This process creates a lot of methane gas as a by-product – a greenhouse gas with a significantly higher impact on the climate than CO2.
Finally, cows take up a lot of grazing space, which has led to significant deforestation – most of the loss of the Amazon rainforest that is currently happening is due to the expansion of the cattle industry.
Understanding what foods are more sustainable, and why, is important, but it is only part of the battle. Making consistent, sustainable food choices while at the grocery store, eating out, or ordering in is the absolute minimum you can do to improve your food sustainability. You do not need to eliminate any part of your diet: wide-scale reduction is what is important.
While vegetarianism and veganism are the most sustainable diets, they are not the only diets that project to be sustainable. What sold me on changing my diet was learning that a modified Mediterranean diet can be only marginally less sustainable than vegetarian diets. By eating more plant-based protein, limiting yourself to chicken and fish a couple of times per week and limiting the higher-impact foods like beef to maybe once a month, you can improve the sustainability of your diet drastically. Following this model, researchers predict that if everyone switched to this diet, long term emissions could go down as much as 15%.
As someone who has followed this diet for six months, I can recommend this change for being surprisingly easy, with multiple additional benefits. Needing to learn a few high-protein plant-based dishes opened a whole world of flavours and cuisines to me and improved my cooking skills in the process. Not only do I feel better about my dietary habits without completely sacrificing my favourite foods, but my grocery bill has gone down, and my energy levels have gone up.
Reducing food waste
According to the National Zero Waste Council, almost 2.2 million tonnes of perfectly fine, edible food gets wasted every year in Canada alone. Per household, it is predicted that each wastes 140kg of food per year, costing on average $1,100. Food waste is a serious problem throughout the world, and one that has many factors that the average Canadian might not be able to contribute towards. But what you can do is ensure you limit the amount of avoidable household food waste you produce.
Admittedly, I am guilty of food waste – it seems like things getting pushed back into the corner of the fridge only to expire is inevitable. However, there are many ways that can help Canadians reduce food waste in the home, and reducing how much food waste you produce is one of the easiest ways to increase your sustainability.
One thing I have begun to do is dating food items after being made or bought. Considering a significant amount of food waste in my home is leftovers, knowing when something was made or frozen is a godsend.
Another important aspect is the grocery list: knowing what you plan on making for a week and buying only what you need prevents unnecessary food items. People are always on the go, so it makes sense that food waste comes secondary into people’s minds. However, by taking little time to figure out what you want to cook for the week, checking out what you need and what you already have, and cooking with usable ingredients even if they are past their prime.
Additionally, websites like Food Rescue and apps like FlashFood, Feedback and Olio have sprung up to help Canadians prevent food waste in their homes or provide smart, less wasteful ways to get food.
However, while average Canadians contribute to these issues of sustainability and food waste daily, the lion share of food waste is driven by businesses. The average Canadian might feel they can do little to prevent the wastefulness of larger companies, but if we all shopped based on sustainability in addition to price and quality, businesses would change their business model’s and images to improve their sustainability.
Shopping for locally grown food is great, and supporting local agriculture is never a bad thing. However, the trend of “shopping locally” strictly for sustainability purposes is misguided, and often negligible in how improves the sustainability of one’s diet.
According to OurWorldInData.org, an estimated 6% of the total emissions generated in the process of food production is caused by the transport of food. 82% of the emissions are related to the production of food – emissions caused by livestock, crop farming and land use.
Buying local can often reduce emissions on transportation, which can be somewhat impactful. However, in the grand scheme of total emissions released by food production, emissions from transport have little impact.
During the summers, buying produce locally makes a tonne of sense in Canada, especially shopping through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture projects. However, in the winter, tomatoes grown locally in an industrial greenhouse may very likely have more emissions associated with them than tomatoes imported from Mexico.
One exception is food commonly transported by flight: typically, only foods with short shelf lives that grow far away are transported by air, which increases the emissions of transport significantly. Produce like berries, green beans and asparagus are typically flown when out of season, so stocking up these products in your freezer when in season or avoiding buying them when not is an impactful way to think local when it comes to sustainability.
In a 2008 study, researchers Weber and Matthews found that replacing “less than one day per week’s who of calories from red meat and dairy to chicken, fish, eggs or vegetable-based diet achieves more [greenhouse gas] emissions than buying all locally sourced food.” There is nothing wrong with shopping local, and I encourage buying locally when it makes sense. But buying local is not the solution to sustainability it has been touted as.
Growing up rurally, our garden took up a significant chunk of our summers, but then made up a significant part of our diets from fall onward. Not everyone has the chance to grow a lot of produce, but almost everyone can increase their sustainability by adding some greenery into their life.
Adding some greenery to your life can be an easy process. If you enjoy cooking with herbs, you can join myself this summer in planting an herb garden. Herb gardens can be low effort once planted, as long as you remember to water them, and can ensure you will always have fresh herbs on hand.
However, there are plenty other ways to increase your sustainability by using your green thumb. If you have a balcony, there are plenty of produce that can be easily grown in small planters, including tomatoes and potatoes, or if you do not have any space, you can contribute locally to city gardens, which add some greenery to our urban spaces and can provide people in the community with fresh produce.
Gardening our own food may be a remnant of the past, but I also think it is the future.
There are many ways to improve the sustainability of our lifestyles. In my opinion, changing your diet can be one of the easiest ones. While taking on climate change individually might seem daunting – every little bit helps. As more and more people understand the power, they themselves have in influencing sustainable change as consumers, the more sustainable companies will become as well. While the collective consciousness on eating local, reducing food waste and cutting down on high emission foods have already taken hold, the more we come together, the more permanent damage to our environment we can avoid.
What do you think? Did you miss any tips? Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments below!
- “IPCC, 2019: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems” https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/. Retrieved February 5th, 2020.
- “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/es702969f. Retrieved February 5th, 2020.
- “The diet that helps fight climate change”. https://www.vox.com/videos/2017/12/12/16762900/mediterranean-diet-pescatarian-climate-change. Retrieved February 5th, 2020.
- “Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.” https://ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions. Retrieved February 5th, 2020.
- “You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local”. https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local. Retrieved February 5th, 2020.
- “Food Waste in the Home” https://lovefoodhatewaste.ca/about/food-waste/. Retrieved February 5th, 2020.