The food we eat affects more than just our personal health. It has major impacts on the environment and without a significant shift to more sustainable diets and agricultural systems, our food will continue to exacerbate the climate and ecological crises.
Food and Climate Change
Globally, the agriculture sector is responsible for an astonishing 26% of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions – rising to 34% when you include the whole food system (from production to consumption). One recent study found that even if we stopped all emissions from fossil fuels, the emissions from food production alone would be enough to push global temperatures well beyond 1.5oC and close to 2oC. Agriculture also uses 50% of the planets habitable land, 70% of all freshwater withdrawals and is responsible for 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (an excess of nutrients in water, which leads to the growth of plants/ algae that deplete the oxygen supply and can cause mass die-offs of fish). Furthermore, since the dawn of human civilization there has been an 83% decline of wild mammals, with 94% of all mammal biomass (excluding humans) now made up of livestock. It is clear there needs to be a radical transformation if we are to reverse these trends.
Here we will explore how food is linked to climate change and the actions we are taking at the nurseries to reduce our food emissions and some suggestions for things you can do at home.
So, what is the best way to reduce the emissions associated with the food we eat. There are a variety of ways to assess the relative environmental impact of foods, but research has consistently shown that a diet containing less meat is almost always better for the environment. Whether you are comparing the protein content or calories, the conclusion is the same – meat and dairy have much higher carbon footprints than plant-based alternatives.
Well, a recent study found that the production of animal-based foods is responsible for 57% of all food related emissions, whilst plant-based foods were responsible for only 29% – the remaining 14% is from other products such as cotton or rubber. This study adds to a wide body of evidence which all suggest that the production of animal-based foods is a major contributor to the climate crisis. For example, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of total human emissions, whilst another recent estimate suggests that animal agriculture is responsible for a minimum of 16.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. But not all meat is the same. This is illustrated by the graph opposite, which looks at the carbon emissions associated with the production of 1kg of different types of food from more than 38,000 farms in 119 countries. The study considered all the factors that go into producing food (e.g., land requirements, how it is farmed, and the transportation and selling stages). It is overwhelmingly clear that meat and dairy (specifically beef, lamb and, cheese) are the most damaging food types. The largest contributor to global emissions associated with beef and lamb production is methane – a greenhouse gas with a warming effect 34x that of carbon dioxide over 100 years and 86x greater over 20 years.
The spread of greenhouse gas emissions (per 100g of protein) created by the production of different food types across 38,000 farms in 119 countries. Figure taken from Carbon Brief – Food & Climate. Data source: Poore & Nemecek (2018).
Some may be thinking that using a global average can be misleading owing to the large variation in production methods around the world – what land has been converted, how much fertilizer is used, what the livestock are fed on etc. There are massive differences between beef grown on deforested land in Brazil, feed lots in the US or pasture fed in the UK. However, even the most sustainable meat has a higher impact than the most damaging plant-based alternatives. This is illustrated in the graph opposite which looks at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with 100g of different protein sources. The peaks on each curve represent how much of global production occurs with a specific carbon footprint.
A completely plant-based diet is the most sustainable – which is not surprising given the emissions of plant-based foods are on average 10-50 times smaller than their meat counterparts – but to avert temperature increases of 1.5oC or 2oC (as all countries have committed too), we do not need to completely eliminate meat from our diets. As the graph below shows, we can still enjoy meat whilst significantly reducing our emissions. For example, a flexitarian diet where 75% of meat and dairy is replaced with cereal and pulses and there is no more than one portion of red meat a week, would lead to global emission reductions of 5.13gt CO2. As part of the EAT-Lancet Commission, leading food and climate scientists worked together to analyses how diets in different regions would need to change and what a healthy and sustainable diet would look like. They termed this diet the ‘planetary health diet’ and is made up of 50% fruit and veg, lots of whole grains, plant sourced protein and unsaturated plant oils. The diet permits one portion of dairy a day, but only one serving of meat a week.
But what about local meat?
This is a claim often made, that eating local is more important than what you eat. After all, lamb grown in the UK has travelled a lot less than say almonds from California. But recent research has shown that the transport emissions associated with food is negligible – just 4.8% of total food emissions. It is becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to the impacts of food, it is not where it comes from or what its wrapped in, but what kind of food it is. It is therefore clear that a shift in diet is essential if we are to limit global temperature increases to 1.5oc or 2oC as called for in the Paris agreement.
Meat replacements offer one potential solution – with similar taste and texture but with a much lower environmental impact. There now exists a myriad of alternatives to different types of meat, from mince to chicken wings, sausages, and haggis and much more. All of which are made completely from plant proteins such as soy, potato, or peas. The graph opposite shows the differences in carbon emissions between beef (the global average) and two plant-based alternatives – Beyond burger and Impossible burger. The comparison is based on multiple ‘life cycle assessments’ which consider the climate impact at every stage of production – from farming, to making, to transporting. It is clear that the carbon emissions from beef is significantly larger, in fact 20 times larger, than the plant-based alternatives. It is worth noting that although plant-based alternatives are better for the environment, there is very little difference in the health impacts of the three. If these are not for you, we could see lab-grown meat in our supermarkets in the next few years – which is essentially meat, but requires a fraction of the resources and doesn’t result in the death of billions of animals a year.
But it is not just meat. Modern industrial farming has thrown us out of kilter with the earths natural systems. Vast areas of land have been converted into monocultures and drowned in herbicides and pesticides, exterminating all life in the near vicinity. The loss of insects is especially alarming, given their importance for properly functioning ecosystems. A study from Germany, one of the few long-term studies on insect abundance, documented a shocking 75% decrease over a 27-year period – which the study authors suggest may be caused by “increased agriculture intensification”.
The UK is a nation dominated by farmland. In fact, 72% of the UK’s land areas is managed as such – most of which is pastoral and used to raise 30 million sheep and 10 million cattle. This means, that farming puts intense pressure on the natural environment. This can be seen most clearly in the precipitous decline of farmland birds, which have more than halved since the 1970’s.
But it does not have to be this way. Regenerative agroecology offers one potential solution, whereby we work with the land, rather than trying to bend it to our will. Instead of monocultures, agroecology promotes the diversification of agriculture systems, through polycultures, crop-livestock mixed systems or agroforestry. Its aim is to ensure food security whilst concomitantly enhancing local biodiversity within agricultural systems. It employs the vast wealth of knowledge farmers have about the local land to design systems that work on a context specific basis. And it is regenerative as it aims to give back to the land through the restoration of soils and natural nutrient and water cycles. This can lead to a net-positive impact on the environment and has even been shown to increase yields, improve soil quality, reduce negative impacts of climate change and allow insect populations to recover.
Food waste is a major global issue, not only because we could end world hunger with the food we waste each year, but because it has a massive impact on the environment. When food is wasted, all the energy, land, and water required to grow, harvest, distribute and package it is wasted, not to mention the large amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide) released when organic matter is left to rot in landfills. Globally, it is estimated that an astonishing one third (that’s roughly 1.3 billion tons of edible food) of all food is wasted and this waste is responsible for 6% of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions. To put that into perspective, if food waste were a country it would be the third biggest emitter!!
Most food is wasted at various stages along the supply chain – due to poor storage, lack of refrigeration, bad handling techniques, or spoilage during transportation and processing – but a significant portion (nearly 40%) is wasted by consumers and supermarkets. In the UK, huge quantities of edible fruit and veg is wasted every year because of how it looks, because it is ‘ugly’ or ‘wonky’! However, most food wasted in the UK (after it has left the farm gate) occurs at the household level. A staggering 68kg of food is wasted per person each year in the UK. Although recent research by the food waste charity WRAP has shown some slight improvements, more is needed to be done.
We are taking several actions at nursery to try and reduce our food waste! To do this we have taken, or are planning on taking, the following actions:
- We strive to make sure that the food on our menu’s is made up of meals that are popular with the children, thereby minimising the amount of leftovers.
- We try and serve slightly smaller portions and encourage children to ask for seconds if they are still hungry.
- Staff are offered any leftovers to have on their break or for lunch and are encouraged to take any leftovers home at the end of the day.
There are also many simple and easy steps that you can take at home to reduce your food waste:
- Make sure to plan ahead. Only buy what you need and as much as you need. It can be tempting to go for all the offers but ask yourself if you will really eat 12 apples in three days.
- Learn how to store your food properly. It sounds silly, but improper storage is a huge contributor to food waste. For example, did you know that tomatoes, onions and garlic should be stored at room temperature and that keeping bananas near apples can cause them to go off quicker? You can learn about how to store all different kinds of food here.
- Check the use-by-dates. Make sure to check the use-by-dates before you buy something and only buy thing you will use before it expires.
- Your freezer should be your best friend. If you’ve got some food that will go off and you don’t know what to do with it, why not see if you can freeze it and use it when you’re ready. Check out what you can and cannot freeze here or here.
- Check out all the amazing resources at Love Food Hate Waste.
Plant-based milks are becoming increasingly popular – with 1 in 3 people now choosing dairy-free milks for home use. Much of this can be attributed to the growing awareness of the climate and ecological crises and how our food and drink habits have an impact. A study conducted in 2018 by researchers at the University of Oxford found that all plant-based milks have a lower environmental impact than dairy milk. Whether it was water use, land use requirements, or carbon emissions – plant-based milks were always better for the environment. Not all plant-based milks are the same though. Of all the plant-based alternatives, almond milk produces the lowest CO2 emissions, but uses large amounts of water and pesticides which can have long-lasting impacts in California – where 80% of almonds are grown. It is worth noting however, that even though almond milk uses the most water of all plant-based alternatives, it still uses less than dairy milk. Oat milk is considered the most sustainable milk alternative.
But isn’t soy a leading cause of deforestation?
Most soy in the world is produced in the US and brazil (together they account for 69% of all soy production), but rather than being used to make tofu and soy milk, most soy is in fact used to feed animals (77% of all soy). In fact, Tesco, Lidl, Asda, McDonald’s and Nando’s have been found to source chicken fed on soy linked to deforestation in Brazil. So not only is soy milk and tofu not leading to deforestation in brazil, but a study conducted in 2017 looking at the major drivers of Brazilian deforestation, found that beef pasture was in fact the biggest cause between 2000 – 2013.
A breakdown of what the world’s soy was used for in 2018 – split into three main categories; direct human food, animal feed and industry. This is then further split into end use products. Figure taken from Our World in Data. Data source: Food Climate Resource Network (FCRN), University of Oxford; and USDA PSD database.
The NHS states that you can “give your child unsweetened calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as soya, oat or almond drinks, from the age of 1 as part of a healthy, balanced diet”. Rice drinks should be avoided though until a child is older than 5 though due to the levels of arsenic found in these products. Alpro soya growing up drink, is fortified with iron, calcium, and iodine, as well as being a source of vitamin B2, B12 and D – providing children with the vital vitamins and nutrients they need whilst growing up.
As a nursery group, NCN is supporting a campaign to ensure that plant-based milks are included in the free nursery milk scheme for nurseries. The current nursery milk scheme in the UK reimburses eligible childcare providers the cost of providing milk to under 5’s. The scheme, however, is only valid for dairy milk and does not include fortified plant-milks. As the popularity of plant-based milks continue to grow and the environmental impacts of dairy milk is becoming increasingly apparent, the need to include fortified plant-based milks in the scheme is clear. The Scottish government has already taken this step, with funding now available for all eligible childcare providers to provide unsweetened calcium enriched soya milk for children over 12 months who cannot drink dairy milk for medical, ethical, or religious reasons.
You can find a petition to have plant-based milk alternatives included in the ‘Nursery Milk Scheme’ here. Please sign it and spread it far and wide.
Our Sustainable Food Map Plan
We are aiming to have a menu that is in line with the ‘Planetary Health Diet’, with 70% of it plant-based, but still with limited dairy milk, chicken, pork and fish available. The aim is to reach Step 11 within a six-month period. We will continue to accommodate all of the allergens that are present at the settings.
Click the image below to view our 11-part step by step plan to transition to the Planetary Health Diet over a six month period. (i.e. by March 2022)
Feedback will be collected after every step and reviews held to assess the successes and challenges encountered. We will share with parents the views of the children and staff both during and after the journey. We fully intend to consult with a nutritionist, to ensure that all the food we serve meets the nutritional requirements of the children under our care and will only serve food that we know the children love.
Important nutrients and a plant-based diet
Reducing the amount of animal products, we consume can be a daunting challenge – but it is relatively easy for all ages to live a healthy life on a plant-based diet. This is supported by the British Dietetic Association (BDA) and NHS, which state that a well planned plant-based diet can support healthy living for all ages. Here you can find a list of some of the key minerals and nutrients that our bodies need and which foods you can eat to get them. Although this list is orientated more to plant-based diets, it can still be useful for people who eat any amount of meat.
Click the images for more information on each nutrient
*Before you take any supplements make sure you consult with a health professional to ensure they are suitable for you
Cutting out meat and dairy doesn’t mean cutting out your favourite meals.
Click the meal times below to get some great ideas for following a plant-based diet