The connection between sustainability, food, and climate change may not be immediately apparent, but it is still extremely important. Food is obviously an essential component of sustainability, as sustenance and nutrition are both needed for the survival of current and future generations. Food plays an important role in the health of our populations and the success of our economy. It is also closely tied to our cultural identity. But food also presents one of the biggest challenges for sustainability; this is because the stress on food production systems is constantly increasing due to the rising demand of a growing population. This occurs on both a local and global scale.
Increasing food production to meet this demand might seem simple enough, but in reality it is a complex issue that should be carefully addressed to determine a long-term solution. Caution is necessary because conventional food production, in particular livestock agriculture, is extremely damaging to our natural environment. It is also resource intensive, where large amounts of water, soil, and energy are needed to ensure successful yields. This means that rushing to increase production in the short term could actually lead to more devastating impacts further down the road.
Environmental Impacts of Food Production
Generally speaking, agricultural food production and consumption damage the environment in several different ways; including deforestation, agricultural run-off, air pollution, and waste. Our reliance on unsustainable food systems is a major barrier towards developing a sustainable society.
How Can You Help?
Like any sustainability challenge, the most important step to take if you want to help solve the problem of unsustainable food production and food waste is to educate yourself on the topics. If you read about the environmental impacts of food, hopefully you learned something you didn’t know before and it inspired you to try and make a difference. Instead of starving yourself in protest, here are some practical actions you can take to help support a transition to a more sustainable food system:
Eat less meat
For most people, reducing the amount of food they eat and making smarter choices about the types of food they eat will have positive impacts on their health, the environment, and our unsustainable food system. The most important of these choices however, is the decision to eat less meat. While certainly not a popular decision for many people, eating less meat is the second most environmentally responsible action an individual can take. It is only less important than switching from a carbon-fueled vehicle to electric.
Worldwide, agricultural meat production is a rapidly expanding industry; this is especially true in the Global South. This trend is because heavy meat consumption is a major characteristic of a western diet, which is often associated with the wealth and success enjoyed by many industrialized countries. As developing countries grow in affluence, wealthier citizens choose diets with larger portions of meat, which are seen as a symbol of status and power.
There are several reasons why reducing meat consumption is environmentally responsible and makes for a more sustainable food system:
- In a resource-limited world, growing meat is an incredibly resource-intensive process. It requires the use of huge amounts of food, water, energy, time, and land.
- The expanding meat-production industry accounts for major habitat destruction and uncountable species extinctions as a result of deforestation
- Livestock agriculture contributes to desertification through overgrazing, compaction, and soil erosion
- Industrial livestock agriculture, or ‘factory farms’, are well known for animal welfare violations and poor living conditions. This is an inevitable outcome of cramming thousands of animals onto a few square-kilometers of land.
- Livestock animals grown for human consumption produce an incredible amount of waste, polluting the land, air, and nearby waterways, and acting as a major driver for climate change
- We already eat far more than we need to or should
The importance of this final point cannot be undervalued. Particularly for red meat (from four-legged land animals), eating more than three ounces once or twice a week can increase the risk of serious health impacts, such as heart disease or cancer. In fact, red and processed meats were recently classified as ‘cancer-causing substances’ (carcinogens) by the World Health Organization. Eating less red meat will help you to limit your caloric, cholesterol, sodium, and fat intake, without leaving you hungry. Red meat is also much more environmentally damaging than white meat, which means that reducing your consumption will make you a happier, healthier, more environmentally responsible person in one easy step.
But what about protein? It is a common argument against vegetarianism that humans need meat to survive because it is an excellent source of protein, which is an essential nutrient. While protein is certainly an important part of the human diet, it is a complete myth that meat is our only source of the nutrient. Some other very common protein sources include eggs, lentils, green peas, chickpeas, quinoa, nuts or nut butter, different types of beans and seeds, tofu, edamame, and leafy greens like spinach or broccoli.
Support local food production
Supporting local is a trend that has been growing in popularity over the past couple years. It’s more than just a fad however, as there are many sustainability benefits that result from supporting local farmers. The most obvious benefit is the reduced impact of transporting the crops. Food purchased from a local farm or farmers market has a much smaller carbon footprint than food that has been shipped from halfway around the world.
Local farms are also often operated at a smaller scale than industrial farms. This generally means that they use less water, energy, and fewer chemicals for food production. Smaller farms usually use less land, more sustainably than their larger competitors, and those with livestock have fewer animals. Compared to industrial farms, local farms like these create less waste, less pollution, and help to support our local economy. Using your power as a consumer to support local businesses like farms is a great way to reduce your environmental impact while treating yourself to a delicious, healthy bounty of locally grown food.
Here in Maple Ridge, you can visit the Haney Farmers Market on Saturdays between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm in Memorial Peace Park on 224 Street. There you can purchase locally grown foods and learn about food production in our area from the growers themselves. You could also take a self-guided Circle Farm Tour through Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows to see the growing locations and learn about the businesses that rely on local food.
If you’re interested, the city encourages you to try your hand at growing your own produce, which is a great hobby that encourages healthy eating, saves money, and teaches children about the importance of sustainable food production. We invite you to visit the CEED Centre Society to learn more about programs and services related to food development and security.
Buy Organic food
Like buying local, eating organic food has become quite trendy in the past decade. Organic foods are grown without the addition of artificial fertilizers or pesticides, and choosing them over non-organic alternatives is an environmentally responsible decision. This is because not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides helps to reduce the amount of pollution associated with food production. It limits the amount of fertilizer running off into streams, which helps prevent algal blooms and eutrophication events. It also eliminates the need for energy to produce those pesticides and fertilizers, and reducing energy use is a great way to mitigate greenhouse gases causing climate change.