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Earth First

6 Reasons Why We Should Care About What We Eat

Nowadays, it seems guaranteed that our supermarket shelves will always be filled with food and drinks. With no need to worry about food availability and access to a wide variety of products, we can become less discerning about what we eat - but doing so has consequences.

It’s important for all of us to make responsible food choices. Here are 6 key reasons why each and every one of us should value our food, and what we can do to make better choices when it comes to what we eat.

1. Food is essential for our health

Food is essential to our survival, but some foods are more valuable than others for our health and well-being, providing us with energy and the nutrients our bodies need. A varied and balanced diet - for example, including fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, whole grains, and other nutrient-dense foods - helps us support our health and prevent diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.1,2 

Read more about plant-based diets and diabetes.

2. Food production can damage the environment

Our current food systems are taking a significant toll on the environment. These systems, including the production, processing and transport of all our food, are responsible for between 20% and 35% of greenhouse gas emissions, meaning our food system is a key driver of climate change and all its knock-on consequences.3

Are you surprised by the carbon footprint of these common foods?

Beyond greenhouse gas emissions, food production is also a key driver of global deforestation and biodiversity loss.3 Conversion of forest land for agricultural use is considered the biggest cause, accounting for around 70% of global deforestation.4,5 Removing trees that can act as ‘carbon sinks’ increases the impact of our food on climate change,4 and also leads to the loss of animal habitats. This, in turn, drives biodiversity losses, as do other common food system practices such as overfishing or using large quantities of pesticides, which can contaminate soil and watercourses.6

Read more about how our food impacts biodiversity.

3. Our future food supply is uncertain

Although food production is currently a key driver of climate change and biodiversity losses, both issues could, in turn, threaten our future food security. Current forecasts suggest that increasing average temperatures could reduce the productivity of food crops by up to 10%,7,8 and that a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the air could result in those crops also producing less nutritious fruits and vegetables.9 Meanwhile, biodiversity loss could potentially impact our future food production as plants and animals become more vulnerable to pests and diseases, and wild pollinators like bees and butterflies are under threat.10  

Our agricultural system is the largest water user worldwide, accounting for 70% of total freshwater use11 This huge demand contributes to global freshwater scarcity and also makes food production more fragile to droughts and climate change.12 Read more about the water footprint of our food and how we can reduce water use in agriculture.

Alongside these challenges, our food systems face a rapidly growing world population, urbanization, and global changes in our consumption patterns. To meet this rising demand and provide adequate nutrition for all, we must minimise the environmental impact of food production and ensure our future food security by switching to more sustainable diets on a large scale. 

4. We waste too much food

Ironically, as we struggle to ensure food security, we are simultaneously wasting a huge amount of food. Each year, around 88 million tonnes of food waste are generated in the EU,13 wasting not only the nutritional value of the food itself but also all the energy, effort and resources (air, land, water, soil, etc.) that went into producing it.14 Reducing food waste is a simple way to reduce the environmental impact of our food, improve food security, and even lower the amount of money we spend on food! 

Read more about the global cost of food waste.

More than half of this food waste is generated by households,13 so we can substantially reduce the amount of food wasted by making small changes in our consumer behaviour and habits. Try planning your meals, storing older food products at the front of your shelves to encourage their use, saving your leftovers, and composting food scraps to minimise food waste.15 For more ideas, check out these 4 ways to reduce household food waste.

In the EU, up to 10% of food waste can be linked to date marking?16 Understanding the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates can help to reduce food waste in households. Learn more about the difference between these two date-marking labels here.

5. Respecting people in the food chain

Another important aspect of our food system is the social costs involved in producing our food. Supply chains often involve issues related to people’s labour, such as low wages, health and safety risks, or even in some cases, modern slavery.17 

Read more about human rights in the food system from Dr Nadia Bernaz, a business and human rights scholar.

Ethical certifications such as Fairtrade can help tackle such social issues by supporting small-scale producers to trade for better prices, holding higher ethical and environmental standards, and protecting and empowering labourers working on large-scale farms, plantations or estates.18 

Learn more about what fairtrade certification means and whether fairtrade really works

6. Retaining our culture

Last but not least, food is part of our culture. Learning about and respecting the origin of our foods can help us stay connected to our traditional and cultural heritage and help maintain the bonds between cultures and people.  

Read more about these modern foods with ancient origins

The history and culture of our food can also bring economic and social benefits. For example, certain EU food products are ‘protected’ to promote their unique characteristics based on the region or town they come from or the traditional method by which they are produced.19 Such ‘protected’ food products help preserve traditional cultural foods and add value to the local economies that produce them.

Value your food by eating more sustainably

By switching to a more sustainable diet, we not only contribute to securing our valuable future food supply but also minimise the impact of our diet on the environment. On an individual level, there are many ways to eat more sustainably, such as consuming less, wasting less, buying more ethically and sustainably produced products, and favouring plant-based foods over animal-based ones.20,21 But the first step is for us all to better value our food.

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References
  1. Sustainable healthy diets – Guiding principles. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization, 2019. Accessed on 17 December 2020.
  2. Transforming agriculture and food systems: halting deforestation and promoting sustainable production and consumption of forest products. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020. Accessed on 4 February 2021.
  3. Agriculture and deforestation: The EU Common Agricultural Policy, soy, and forest destruction. Mark Gregory & Nicoltation: The EU Common Agricultural Policy, soy, and forest destruction. Mark Gregory & Nicole Polsterer, 2017. Accessed on 16 February 2021.
  4. The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019. Accessed on 4 February 2021.
  5. Global scale climate-crop yield relationships and the impacts of recent warming. Lobell & Field, 2007. Environmental research letters. Accessed on 3 February 2021.
  6. Climate impacts on agriculture: implications for crop production. Hatfield et al., 2011. Accessed on 3 February 2021. ulture: implications for crop production. Hatfield et al., 2011. Accessed on 3 February 2021.
  7. Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017. Accessed on 3 February 2021.
  8. The biodiversity that is crucial for our food and agriculture is disappearing by the day. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019. Accessed on 16 February 2021.
  9. Water for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017. Accessed on 17 December 2020.
  10. Water Scarcity - One of the greatest challenges of our time. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017. Accessed on 16 February 2021.
  11. Estimates of European food waste levels. Stenmarck et al., 2016. Accessed on 16 December 2020.
  12. Food loss and waste and value chains – Learning guide. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019. Accessed on 13 January 2021.
  13. 15 Quick tips for reducing food waste and becoming a Food hero. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2020. Accessed on 4 February 2021.
  14. Date marking and food waste. European Commission. Accessed on 16 December 2020.
  15. Human rights in the food system - Ask the expert. Rao & Bernaz, 2020. Accessed on 17 February 2021.
  16. About us. Fairtrade International. Accessed on 5 February 2021.
  17. Quality schemes explained. European Commission. Accessed on 12 January 2021.
  18. Towards more sustainable diets. European Food Information Council (EUFIC), 2018. Accessed on 17 December 2020.
  19. Dietary guidelines and sustainability. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed on 7 January 2021.
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