As we contemplate the catastrophe of climate change and the ways in which we can tackle this beast, what usually comes to mind is necessary tech-revisions and emission-reductions in the transportation, aviation, and energy industries. While those indeed the are the world’s biggest polluters, we often tend to ignore another major culprit: the food industry.
Last month, The New York Times published an elaborate piece about the facts behind pollution in the food industry. Screen Shot prepared a palatable version of these findings, which would give you an insight into the most polluting foods out there and what dietary choices you can make in order to reduce your carbon footprint.
So just how polluting is the food industry?
According to Science Magazine, the food system currently accounts for roughly one-quarter of the global greenhouse gas emissions humans produce each year. This figure refers to all stages of growth, production, distribution, and consumption of foods, which generate varying degrees of pollution. This includes deforestation for the purpose of farming, operation of farm machinery, raising and harvesting of all types of food—from meats to plants, as well packaging and shipping of food products.
Which types of foods cause the most damage?
The answer to this question is simple: meats and dairy. But even within these two categories there is a hierarchy.
The biggest greenhouse gas emitters are beef and lamb, with beef alone accounting for 17.7 percent of the average annual CO2 impact and lamb responsible for 9.9 percent. The main reason why meat production leaves a greater carbon footprint is that it takes up more space and energy to produce animal products as opposed to plant-based produce. It also requires more resources to raise crop that is used to feed animals which then become food themselves, as opposed to raising crop that goes directly to feed humans. Finally, cows and lambs in particular contain a special bacteria in their stomach that helps them digest grass, but also generates methane (an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas).
Next on the list of shame are farmed shrimp, which account for 9.1 percent of the average greenhouse gas impact. Farmed catfish is reportedly a great polluter as well, and so are wild shrimp and lobsters, as pulling them out of the water requires an enormous amount of energy.
Cheese, specifically Cheddar and Mozzarella, are responsible for 5.4 percent of the annual emissions average. These cheeses are more polluting than other milk products as they require large amounts of milk to be produced.
Pork and chicken trail right behind, with pork accounting for 3.8 percent of CO2 impact and poultry for 2.9 percent. Finally, eggs reportedly account for 2.1 percent of emissions and at the bottom of the list are tofu, beans and nuts (with each hardly scraping one percent).
Can my diet truly make an impact in curbing global warming?
Absolutely. Although there are other factors to consider while attempting to be more environmentally-conscious, such as our driving, flying, and consumption habits, our diet is one of the simplest ways in which we can begin to make a difference, and a growing number of studies confirm that being mindful of what we eat can significantly reduce our carbon footprint.
What dietary changes should I make, then?
First and foremost—cut back on meats and dairy. Specifically, try to reduce your consumption of beef and lamb. If relinquishing meat altogether equates the apocalypse for you, try to rely more on pork and poultry in your diet, as their production results in lower amounts of CO2 emissions.
Consuming less dairy would also significantly reduce your carbon footprint. When you do, try to opt for products like yoghurt, cottage cheese, and cream cheese, which cause less pollution. As a general rule, try to avoid cow’s milk when possible and go with soy, oat or almond milk.
If seafood is your thing, aim for wild fish such as anchovies, sardines, herring, tuna, pollock, cod, and haddock, as well as clams, oysters, and scallops, all of which generate relatively low levels of pollution.
Am I being guilted into going vegan?
Well, not exactly. While going vegan will reduce your carbon footprint by an estimated 50 percent (gasp!), simply cutting back on meats and dairy will go a long way as well, especially if you live in The West or Australia. The World Resources Institute found that if the average American substituted a third of their beef consumption with pork, poultry or legumes, their diet-caused emissions will be reduced by approximately 13 percent.
But, naturally, becoming vegan, a vegetarian, or even a pescetarian will have the most dramatic impact on your carbon footprint.
Last but crucial food-related pointers
Try to opt for seasonal and locally-grown produce. While the actual content of your diet bears more significance than where it comes from, shipping and transportation of foods nonetheless generate an immense level of CO2 emissions. What products are recommended to buy in each season will vary depending on your location.
Don’t waste food! Try to plan your purchases based on your estimated needs. In the U.S., for instance, people throw out an average of 20 percent of the food they buy, which means a tremendous amount of production-energy is generated for no reason.
Finally, for Pete’s sake, figure out how to recycle properly. Recycling is in no way a substitute for reducing waste in the first place and adjusting our diets, but it can certainly shrink our carbon footprint if done accurately. Misplacing recyclable materials in bins can cause greater damage than not recycling at all, so be sure to consult the website of your local municipality for instructions about how to recycle correctly. And, as many neighbourhoods have no plastic-bag recycling capabilities yet, using reusable shopping bags is highly recommended.
“Don’t waste cucumber skin and seeds—turn them into a cooling summer drink”.
“How to make the most of ripe tomatoes”.
“Is it safe to eat mouldy jam? Theresa May thinks so”.
These are just some of the titles of the many food waste articles that have recently been flooding the media (with some interesting articles, and others less so). In the U.K., brands and people have all been pledging to reduce their food waste. Even the Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition about food and our relationship to it called FOOD: Bigger than the Plate.
So why all the fuss? Because not only is food waste morally unethical, but also our food consumption habits must undergo huge transformations in order to stop the planet from crumbling down or burning up. To lift the mood on that heavy but urgent topic, I wanted to have a more careful look at what’s happening around food waste, who are the people actually changing the game, and what’s next technology-wise.
The first step toward a world where food waste is not an issue is changing our attitude and approach to it. This concept is not recent (during wartime wasting food was out of the question), but today, the urgency surrounding that matter is added on top. We’re not going to transform the problem of the huge quantity of food wasted only by drinking beer made from surplus bread or by learning how to properly peel off the trickiest aliments. But what these ideas are about is exactly what needs to become common thinking: approaching food with a different mentality and being aware of how much food we waste for no justifiable reason at all.
In London, the Brixton Pound Cafe is doing just that and more. This pay-what-you-can surplus food cafe is a radical space with radical ideas where anyone can enjoy veggie and vegan food. Screen Shot talked to environmentalist and the cafe’s chef Sean Roy Parker about food waste and why making surplus food look sexy is the way to go. “The issue is that food waste is shrouded in secrecy because supermarkets’ habits are criminal, why would they want you to know how much food they throw away every day?” Parker notes, adding that “By turning surplus food into affordable meals, we are solving two problems simultaneously: reducing food waste and tackling income inequality. The bonus is that the food is fantastically healthy and tasty”. This attitude is one that local communities should adopt concerning food waste, because every little helps (even Tesco’s ‘reduced’ items).
But what about the rest of the U.K.? The rest of the world? Too Good To Go is an app operating in twelve countries, with its main goal being to save some food—food that is ‘too good to go’. The app allows you to see what food you can pick up in your vicinity before it gets thrown away at the end of the day from restaurants and food shops. This way, you can support your local businesses while contributing to a better environment. Simultaneously, the businesses get to reduce their waste and get potential new customers to try out their food. Still feeling sceptical? Too Good To Go’s website states that since 2016, the company saved over 746,760 meals in the U.K. alone.
Talking to Screen Shot about Too Good To Go’s early days, marketing manager Anoushka Grover said, “When we first started, the concept of food waste wasn’t really understood. Once you show people the consequences of their actions, everyone is a lot quicker to take a stand and make a change. Conscious consumerism has been on the rise for a number of years, but we’ve definitely seen it snowballing over the last few years”. So what’s next for Too Good To Go? “We have set some goals for 2020 which include inspiring 50 million people to take action against food waste, partnering with 75,000 food businesses, impacting legislation in 5 countries and supporting 500 schools in educating about food waste, ultimately saving 100 million meals from landfill”, Anoushka told us.
The last element that could make a big change in this food waste cycle is technology. We frequently use it to solve other problems, so why not try implementing it here as well? IKEA is attempting to cut food waste in its kitchens (think about all those meatballs) with an AI bin designed to recognise and monitor what gets thrown away. This ‘intelligent’ bin was made by U.K. technology startup Winnow Vision and uses a camera and smart scales to keep track of what types of food end up in the rubbish bin. Winnow estimates that it has saved almost $30 million worth of food so far.
Awareness of food waste is definitely there and on the rise, but the global response it has received so far is inadequate considering the size of the problem. We need to understand that food waste is not only happening on our tables, it’s also happening with farms and food companies, meaning that all the resources that went into making your food go to waste as well.
There is currently a lack of data and research that are needed in order to accurately estimate the full social, economic, and environmental benefits of food waste reduction. That said, let us be mindful of the bigger picture and make a change—whether it’s by scraping off mould on your jam like Theresa, contributing to the Brixton Pound Cafe, or using apps like Too Good To Go.
This article is a result of our Screen Shot workshop held at the V&A on Friday 28 June during the FOOD: Bigger than the Plate exhibition. In this participatory installation and therapy session, participants gave us the ingredients for the perfect food waste article.