The Naked Truth: The high cost of big food production
The pursuit to live more sustainably can throw up many uncomfortable and difficult hurdles. Most often, they rely on embracing new habits and creating permanent change to the way you have been going about your life.
The trouble with trying to live more sustainably is that it can be so difficult to know which voices to listen to. With contradictions and less than perfect summations of new initiatives rife in conversation, it’s important to remember that good can often be better than perfect, and making any kind of efforts to tread a little lighter on this planet is most certainly a positive thing.
In this piece, we delve into the impact the food industry has on our planet. We all have to eat, but by making more considered choices, and supporting positive food ways, we can help make a substantial difference to any negative environmental footprints.
Methane and the meat industry
This ‘meaty’ subject is as good a place as any to kick the subject off, and likely an issue most are aware of. Big farming is considered hugely detrimental to the planet. The Guardian reported that between deforestation (to make way for livestock) along with methane emissions from cows and fertilizer use, it collectively creates as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the world’s trucks, cars and airplanes.
In October of last year, a report suggested that in order to keep global temperature rises below 2ºC by 2050, western countries need to reduce their beef intake by 90%.
As well as the methane produced from cattle, one of the other issues making mass farming so unsustainable, is the amount of water and feed required to generate a kilo of meat. It’s estimated that to produce a kilo of beef, it requires up to 20,000 litres of water, while a kilo of wheat needs up to just 4,000 litres.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) suggest that you can save more water by not eating a pound of meat, than you can by not showering for six months! Reducing your meat consumption is one of the most impactful changes you can make and with products like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat growing exponentially, the decision to choose meat-free options is easier than ever before.
Transport and food miles
It’s important to keep an eye on just where your food is coming from. When produce is listed as local, it's not necessarily a mark to say that it is high quality or tastes better, but it does mean the miles for transport will be significantly less compared to your Costa Rican tinned pineapple or Spanish strawberries.
Preservation and plastics
Preserving food through canning and pickling is a very sensible practice, making the most of seasonal produce and extending shelf life. However, there are other forms of food preservation that are currently under scrutiny, with (you guessed it) single use plastic being public enemy number one. For the most part, using plastic to wrap fresh produce has no benefits other than from pricing and marketing purposes – although the humble cucumber’s life span triples when wrapped in plastic.
A lot of plastics are used in convenience foods and while made from a recyclable material, black plastic trays can't be sorted properly in recycling centres, meaning they end up in landfill. This has led Waitrose to remove around 13,000 tons of the dastardly stuff from their own-label foods and have pledged to phase out black plastic completely by the end of 2019.
Let’s hope more follow suit and research continues into more eco-friendly food packaging solutions. The wave of change has started, the ground swell is there.
The big problem with soil erosion
Ploughing, or tilling, fields poses a serious soil erosion threat, as the loosened soil can be washed away through rains, or blown away in strong winds. As climate change continues this is becoming more and more of an issue. In fact, soil erosion has become such a significant problem that scientists predict we’ll have only 60 crops left if we continue to till the soil.
Solutions lie in ground cover crops, and perennial crops. Roots and plants help slow down water as it flows over the land and ensures rain water sinks into the ground, rather than washes the soils away. Plant roots also help to keep the soil bonded and further protects it from being washed away.
However, there are a number of farmers converting to no-till methods and organisations like Conservation Agriculture UK and No-Till, are providing resources to farmers who want to adopt restorative farming techniques.
The high price of feeding the nation is arguably in an environmental deficit. While taking fewer car journeys and recycling more effectively are both great strides into living more sustainably, it’s a more responsible approach to food that makes the biggest impact. Between reduced meat consumption, restorative farming techniques, and new packaging technologies that are fighting to make plastic a thing of the past, the scales could soon look a little more balanced, but in order for that to happen, we need to take action.
The future is in our hands... and in our stomachs.