Photo by Rene Cortin
Food / Sustainability

Eating for a Sustainable Future

Living on a campus as environmentally conscious as Bowdoin, where vegan and vegetarian options are consistently available, it’s hard not to consider the environmental impacts of our diet. Although I’d never been compelled to make a serious change in my diet, I was astounded the more I came to understand how my eating habits could affect the reality of a sustainable future.

The meat industry has far-reaching environmental repercussions. One cow can consume up to 11,000 gallons of water each year, and considering that Americans eat 26 billion pounds of beef, that becomes a pretty significant figure. Cows and other livestock also produce tons of methane, around 18% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Producing 100g of meat results in 105kg of greenhouse gases, while tofu produces less than 3.5kg for the same amount of food. Additionally, a vast amount of land is needed to raise livestock and grow crops to feed them. Because of this, many producers have resorted to inhumane practices such as factory farms, where animals are packed into tiny cages, unable to move, and force-fed from tubes. The other result is that many decide to sacrifice forests to accommodate livestock, engaging in mass deforestation practices and contributing to emissions. In Latin America, for example, 2.71 million hectares (an area about half the size of Massachusetts) are destroyed each year to create pastures. Deforestation causes a loss of biodiversity that is harmful to ecosystems and also contributes significantly to GHG emissions.

These challenges will only grow as we adapt to feed a burgeoning population. Global food demand is estimated to increase from 60 to 100% by 2050. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), “adopting sustainable diets at a global level is urgently needed.” Clearly, we need to significantly alter our agricultural practices, but is vegetarianism the solution?

First, it’s necessary to consider the transport costs associated with much of the produce we consume. In 2016, the United States imported 80% of its fish, 53% of fresh fruits, and 20% of its fresh vegetables. Transporting such large quantities of food has obvious environmental impacts and is unlikely to be sustainable long-term.

Furthermore, this mass importation of produce is placing an economic burden on other countries. During the so-called “super-food craze,” the U.S. became obsessed with a number of previously unknown foods that were purported to offer incredible health benefits. Quinoa was one of these foods, with its price rising by 600% from 2005 to 2013. As demand for this grain ballooned, a number of countries sought to take advantage of the new market. Peru and Bolivia tripled their quinoa exports from 2006 to 2013, even replacing other traditional commodity crops to grow more. Meanwhile, national quinoa consumption in these countries fell by 34% because many could no longer afford this staple food, and were forced to turn to less healthy alternatives. Some argued that this increased export was beneficial for these South American countries’ economies. Yet when the fad inevitably passed, many farmers found that they now had a lot of quinoa and no demand for it. Furthermore, they didn’t have as many alternative cash crops, having given them up in favor of growing quinoa. A similar situation is currently unfolding in Kenya, where the world’s sixth largest producer of avocados has recently banned the export of the fruit due to shortages within the country. Avocado is another trendy food, whose price has shot up 400%, making it difficult for many Kenyans to afford.

These effects may not be as environmentally costly as those associated with meat production, but they should be taken into account when considering alternative food options. One way to mitigate the effects of mass importation and exportation of produce is to buy and grow locally, whenever possible. This goal will hopefully be aided by the development of new technology, like efficient greenhouses.

In the Netherlands, researchers have been figuring out how to feed more people using fewer resources. They have developed greenhouses that can grow the same crops with 90% less water, and despite being such a small country, they are now the leading exporter in potatoes and onions. One of the biggest accomplishments of these Dutch greenhouses is that they allow produce like tomatoes, which usually require a more temperate environment, to be grown in the harsh climate of the Netherlands. The United States is already working to follow in the footsteps of the Dutch. Researchers at Cornell University have found that they can grow 20 to 50 times more lettuce per acre in a greenhouse than in a field in California. Their biggest challenge is finding a way to scale up this technology and to power the multitude of LED lights, but once this is accomplished they are looking to put greenhouses in cities across the country. This would have a huge impact in reducing fossil fuels from food transportation and allowing people to consume sustainably and locally.

One of the biggest challenges is that a meatless diet is probably not economically feasible for most people. Meat is often the cheapest and most convenient option, as evidenced by the fact that McDonald’s sells 75 burgers every second. Reducing the consumption of meat is one possible solution. Alternative meat products, currently under development, will likely be a viable future option. Finless Foods is using cellular agriculture to grow fish from cells in a lab, in order to combat overfishing. According to the FAO, 90% of global fish stocks are overfished. Just Foods, another company that is experimenting with new plants and cellular agriculture, has created a variety of animal-free products, from meat to eggs to cookie dough.

We need to change the way we eat if we want to slow climate change and feed the world’s growing population. Fortunately, advances like greenhouses and alternative meats are promising. As researchers work to refine and scale this type of technology, sustainable options will become accessible to more people. For now, we as individuals should focus on doing what we can to reduce food waste and meat consumption, while also being conscious consumers who strive to eat locally and sustainably.