Sustainable Living: How do we consume sustainably? Part 1: Food and Diet

A sustainable lifestyle begins with the things we consume. What we buy determines what is grown, harvested, produced, packaged, shipped and stored. We’ll look at the production side later, but we hold great power as consumers to dictate the types of products that are brought to market. If we start making purchasing decisions based on sustainability, we take a big step towards creating something sustainable.

We will look at major categories of spending in turn, starting with food. With due acknowledgment to the millions of low-income people living in food deserts — an injustice that deserves its own, separate analysis *** — we exercise a lot of freedom over our food choices. And if you are like me, you never knew how much impact what we eat has on the planet.

Just some quick facts (all from ourworldindata): food accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions; agriculture takes up half the world’s habitable land (and requires more deforesting every day); 70% of freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture; and, of the 28,000 species threatened with extinction, agriculture and aquaculture is listed as a threat for 24,000 of them.

This chart makes clear something you probably already knew - eating beef has a huge environmental impact compared to eating an orange. You may be surprised to learn, however, that chocolate, coffee and shrimp are bigger offenders than pork and chicken. The current wisdom that a plant-based diet is more sustainable is supported by the table, but we also can see that a diet that prefers chicken over other meat and dairy would be more sustainable than the reverse.

If you’re asking why coffee and chocolate rank so high in emissions, the answer lies in the deforestation and the energy-intensive production process they require. A single chocolate bar, for example, is estimated to require 1000 liters of water. I’m not suggesting anyone completely eliminate chocolate, coffee or even beef from their diet - I don’t think I’d have any readers left, and it’s not necessary. Instead, we can imagine that we have a sustainability budget, and the more we can substitute or reduce our consumption of these high-budget items, the better off we will be.

I don’t know exactly how much beef, chocolate or coffee is allowed in a sustainable diet, but currently the average American has a carbon footprint 8 times where we need it to be by 2050. We will need to make reductions across the board. If we replaced red meat and dairy with chicken and eggs, we would reduce our land use by over 70%, freeing up massive areas to be reforested. We would go a long way towards this even if we still ate beef and dairy as treats on occasion.

This is the sort of clarity we need to help navigate the supermarket aisle or restaurant menu. Within our individual budget constraints, we can start to make simple substitutions that, all added together, have a massive impact on the planet and future generations. With the help of the chart above, we can opt for foods lower on the list as much as we can. So, go for the chicken burger next time, or be daring and go vegan (even if only one day a week) - it makes a difference.

*** A huge caveat to this entire project is that people without sufficient resources to make sustainable choices simply need those resources as a matter of equity and collective sustainability.


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