September 19, 2020

Can we improve the planet from food?


In recent years there has been an intense debate on the need to change our eating habits for various reasons, among which is the preservation of ecosystems and planetary balances.

Why not eating meat is more sustainable (but will not solve the problem of the greenhouse effect)

Why not eating meat is more sustainable (but will not solve the problem of the greenhouse effect)

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At the origin of these debates there are various reports and articles scientists. They warn about the negative consequences to maintain current trends in food production and consumption, and information on options to keep food systems within planetary limits.

Food is one of the human activities with the greatest environmental impact. It is not the only one, but it is one of the most important. That is why it is urgent to change our current patterns to improve the state of the planet, while obtaining economic benefits and of health.

The B side of eating

One of the most worrying impacts of current agri-food systems is their great contribution to climate change. Food as a whole is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

These emissions occur throughout the value chain, from animal and vegetable production (52% and 29% of the total food systems, respectively), their processing and packaging (9%) and transportation and distribution (9%). A third of these emissions correspond to losses and food waste.

Furthermore, the way we produce and consume food today is seriously affecting ecosystems and biodiversity. It is estimated that since the beginning of the last century the abundance of native species has been reduced by 20% globally, largely due to the overexploitation and degradation of ecosystems derived from agri-food production.

The consequences of these losses are not only aesthetic or patrimonial (an ecosystem wealth that future generations will not be able to enjoy), but also pose a threat to people’s well-being and food security: the reduction of the number of insects and species pollinators is a great risk to food production.

On the other hand, agri-food systems, as they are mostly designed today, are highly demanding of finite resources or slow recovery, such as water (more than 70% of total freshwater consumption), land (43% use of ice-free land and desert), phosphorus (90% of phosphate rock used in agriculture), fossil fuels (30% of world energy consumption), etc.

At the other extreme, these systems are a major source of contamination due to the excessive use of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and the incorrect management of livestock waste.

The culprits are not the animals

The impacts of agricultural production, however, should not be seen as the sole responsibility of those who produce food. The cattle ranchers, farmers, farmers and farmers are one more link in the food chain. They are often not the ones who benefit the most from it, nor are they the most recognized for the crucial work they do.

It is not the fault of the cows, or the pigs, or the chickens, or even the soybeans. It would also be unfortunate to blame people for their food choices. Agri-food systems –from production to consumption– are deeply influenced by agrarian policies and financial decisions that, unfortunately and traditionally, have not taken into account environmental impacts, on human health or animal welfare. In these links there is more power to define what, how and how much is produced.

However, it would be wrong to think that consumption decisions are trivial in the configuration of agri-food systems. Changes in individual habits have much greater potential than is often attributed to them.

The power of social change

The environmental impact directly attributable to a single person may seem ridiculous on a planetary scale, but the same cannot be said for the repercussions on their social environment. Recently a series of climate models have been developed that include the social factor in their mathematical equations, compared to traditional ones that only include biophysical variables.

Considering social variables allows us to observe how the behaviors of some people influence others, and what impacts they would have on a planetary scale. According to these studies, social learning may have a impact on climate anomaly more than 1 ℃.

Other investigations They warn that it is almost impossible to achieve climate goals without a profound transformation of our eating habits.

Transform from citizenship

He 97% of Spanish citizenship states that they care about the environment and most perceive that they care more than their social environment. The latter, in addition to being mathematically impossible, contributes to inhibiting the intention to act in a sustainable way and even expressing concern or interest in environmental issues.

Internalizing the idea that most people don’t care about the environment, and that the normal is showing interest and concern for other issues – such as money, time, comfort or social status – has negative consequences.

In recent decades, this social norm has affected our decisions, helping to transform our eating habits to levels that are difficult to sustain both for the planet and for our arteries.

However, eat a sustainable diet It is as easy as following a healthy diet, giving priority to seasonal and local foods, choosing foods produced using ecological or agroecological practices and avoiding food waste.

As a society, moving towards a sustainable diet can be as easy as favoring contexts that invite sustainable choices, and making conscious and responsible consumption a behavior to imitate.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. You can read it here.

The Conversation

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