Food matters: Setting the table for a greener future

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Humans ought to change their eating habits to successfully meet the 2050 targets set out in the European Commission's resource efficiency roadmap, writes Oliver Smith.

Oliver Smith is deputy director of programmes at WWF-UK.

"The European food chain lifecycle puts more and more pressure on the environment. Food consumption and production is estimated to attribute 20%-30% to total environmental impact of the EU’s production and consumption and accounts for no less than 15% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Oliver Smith is deputy director of programmes at WWF-UK.

"The European food chain lifecycle puts more and more pressure on the environment. Food consumption and production is estimated to attribute 20%-30% to total environmental impact of the EU’s production and consumption and accounts for no less than 15% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Food is now seen by many as a key area of concern and there is a growing understanding that we need to move out of our silos and work more holistically. A sustainable food system must conserve biodiversity and reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions whilst ensuring farmers livelihoods and supporting communities.

Food resilience and sustainable agriculture will continue to gain momentum as they fall under the same umbrella of food security. The Food and Agriculture Organisation promotes the fact that we will need to produce 70% more food to feed our growing population. This theory may well be impossible given that we live in an increasingly resource-constrained world. WWF research showed the large ecological footprint of western diets and the necessity to switch habits back to the Earth’s bio-capacity. Food accounts for 23% of humanity’s ecological footprint and the food we consume within Europe effects many important, sensitive ecosystems such as the Amazon, Borneo, Sumatra and the Mediterranean basin.

Livestock production has the largest impact. Globally, it accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet. Livestock farming leads in most cases to a range of direct and indirect environmental stresses like habitat conversion, greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication and soil erosion, water scarcity and draught and various forms of air pollution.

Some 306 of the 825 WWF terrestrial eco-regions reported livestock as one of their current threats. With rapidly increasing global demand for food and other renewable resources this number is expected to rise significantly.

In the EU, it has taken less than 50 years to change society’s views on food, and meat in particular. We are no longer eating the traditional diets that we are so proud of, instead we are eating more resource intensive foods: more meat and dairy than ever before. In the last half a century, while beef and lamb consumption has stabilised, our consumption of pork and chicken has risen by 80% and 400% respectively. At the same time we have seen a growth in factory farming and loss of biodiversity for food, mainly to grow feed, as well as a growth in diet related ill health. Developing a better understanding of what a sustainable diet constitutes is thus essential for a healthy population, environmental sustainability and energy security.

In September 2011, the European Commission presented its Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, expressing a 2050 vision of a European economy that respects resource constraints and planetary boundaries. Next to this vision, the roadmap sets out milestones for 2020 with food being one of the three key economic sectors identified as being a barrier for meeting the 2020 milestones.

WWF, in partnership with Friends of Europe, is working on sustainable diets and over the next three years will be running the LiveWell project. The principles are simple: eating more fruit and vegetables whilst using meat in your diet so it is a tasty complement rather than just a centrepiece of a good meal. Having healthy varied foods is easier than you think. Some of the most famous cuisines, such as Italian or Thai, use very little meat. Of course they have some high meat dishes but these are the exception, not the rule. Meat is not the main part of the meal or is used in smaller amounts.

Food matters. Its impact on the environment is enormous and it is driven by how we live our lives and the choices we make."

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