How tweaking your diet can help save the planet

Food is, of course, fundamental to life.

But in a perhaps ironic twist, the things we eat are fueling some of the greatest threats to humanity’s survival. A growing body of evidence has found our industrialized food production systems are a source of pollution, a contributor to climate change and a cause of biodiversity loss.

You can help change that, though. Here are 10 simple things you can do today to lessen the environmental toll of your diet.

1. Understand food as a process, not a product

People often see food on a grocery store shelf and don’t think much about how it got there.

But between farm and fork, food must be processed, packaged, transported,  marketed and sold. Many of those stages can be damaging to the planet. When you consider the entire food system, you’re better positioned to make informed choices about the things you eat.  

2. Support sustainable agriculture

Buy your food from producers and retailers who specialize in sustainable products.

Sustainable agriculture uses up to 56 per cent less energy, creates 64 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and allows for greater levels of biodiversity than conventional farming. And because sustainably produced products are typically more labour intensive, they can create 30 per cent more employment, command higher prices and generate higher incomes.

3. Know what you’re eating

Pesticides, herbicides and antimicrobial drugs are often used to increase crop and livestock yields but can have detrimental effects on human health. Discharge from farms can also contaminate aquatic ecosystems and pollutes the soil.  

Read labels, ask questions and do your research about where foods come from and how they are produced. Choose sustainably-farmed whole foods over intensively-farmed and highly-processed food products when you can. Prepare meals at home, instead of buying take-away.

4. Plant your own garden

Growing your own produce eliminates the need for chemicals, like pesticides, packaging, preservatives, fuel for transport and cold chain storage. Fruits, vegetables and herbs in their most natural form are also the most nutritious. They are high in vitamins with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects – and relatively low in cost. 

Engage neighbours and friends in building a community garden. Grow fruits and vegetables around your home, on your balcony or on your window sill.

5. Buy local

In addition to supporting small businesses and farms, buying locally produced food reduces fossil fuel emissions associated with transport and cold chain storage. It also lessens the potential for food loss along the way.

Building relationships with local producers and retailers is a way to understand how your food was produced, engage in dialogue, express your concerns and exchange ideas.

6. Adopt a plant-rich diet

The demand for resource-intensive animal protein has grown dramatically in recent years.  Currently, about 60 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock grazing and people in many countries are consuming more animal-sourced food than is healthy

Adopting plant-rich diets would use less land, produce less greenhouse gas, require less water and improve animal welfare. It would also make available more cropland, crucial with the global population set to hit 9 billion people in 2050. Moving toward plant-rich diets could also help to reduce chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, as well as the associated costs of treatment and lost income.

7. Diversify your diet

Worldwide, diets are increasingly homogenous and disproportionately based on crops that are rich in energy, but poor in macronutrients. Over the past 100 years, more than 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared. Today, just nine plant species account for 66 per cent of total crop production. Nearly one in three people suffer from some form of malnutrition, with many countries facing simultaneous challenges of both undernutrition and overweight or obesity.

According to the EAT-Lancet Commission, moving toward healthy diets with a diversity of plant-based foods, and away from highly processed foods and diets heavy in refined grain and added sugar, could prevent up to a quarter of all adult deaths. 

8. Reduce food waste

One-third of all food produced is either lost or wasted. This isn’t only in shops or restaurants and it isn’t just in wealthy households.  The United Nations Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index Report finds it’s a global phenomenon that cuts across income levels.

To cut down on waste, plan ahead and buy only the food you know you will use. Take advantage of every edible part of the foods you purchase. Measure portion sizes of rice and other staples before cooking them, store food correctly (use your freezer if you have one), be creative with leftovers, share extras with your friends and neighbours, and contribute to a local food-sharing scheme. Finally, make compost out of inedible remnants and use it to fertilize your garden.  

9. Avoid unnecessary packaging

Food packaging tends to end up at landfills and every year, about 5 trillion single-use plastic bags pollute land and sea.

Whenever possible, choose unpackaged, sustainably or minimally-packaged food products. Use baskets for food shopping, carry reusable or cloth bags with you and store food in glass jars or wrap it in bee’s wax or other sustainable materials.

10. Make your voice heard

The world spends about 1 million dollars per minute to subsidize existing food systems, distorting markets, impeding change and damaging human and environmental health.

Call on governments and policy-makers to drive a transition toward sustainable agriculture and to prioritize the reduction of food loss and waste in their climate change action plans. Call for transparency of producers, retailers and services about agricultural practices, ingredients and their nutritional values.

Finally, be an advocate in your own social circles. Use your social media platforms to share information, recipes, ideas and inspiration.  Lastly, form networks, start projects, raise your voice. 

UN Environment