This article originally appeared in the latest July edition of Foodie: The Future & Food. Read it here!
The Big Issue
When we picture the looming problems of sustainability, images of factories and litter usually materialize in our minds rather than consideration for what we are having for dinner. In reality, the mounting demand for food, and the way we harvest and distribute it, pose some of the most prominent threats to our health and our planet.
At current, we are experiencing one of the greatest public health crises in our human history in association with food. This threatens to bankrupt us as a collective, with drastic inflation in dietary-related ailments such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. The Centre for Disease Control in the United States estimates that 75% of the national health care budget is spent treating preventable chronic diseases, many of which, are directly linked to diet. In Hong Kong, according to government health statistics from 2013 and 2014, of the five leading causes of death, three are linked to eating habits.
There is pressing need to maintain balance in the ecosystem and improve sustainable agriculture practices in order to secure adequate food supplies to meet demands. These pressures are all linked to the food choices we make on a daily basis.
The Role of Food
By 2050, the world’s population is estimated to reach a staggering 9.1 billion. The global middle class, alone, is expected to grow by 3 billion in the span of 17 years between 2020 to 2037, as projected by the Wolfensohn Centre for Development. With this increase in population, and a demand for richer protein-based diets, Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment at University of Minnesota, projects that our demand for crops will double from present figures. Over the past 40 years, the global demand for animal products has tripled, as calculated by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation of Australia. The result is an increased strain on crop levels to feed livestock, and the shifting of land allocation towards growing feed crops.
Industrialised agriculture contributes significantly to global warming. Methane from rice farms and livestock, as well as carbon dioxide from slash-and-burn agriculture, produce more greenhouse gases than the combined output of ground and air transport globally. In addition, large-scale industrialised farming requires vast quantities of water, and contaminates ecosystems with toxic fertilisers and pesticides.
A greater demand for animal protein doesn’t just stop on land, but extends to the oceans. At current, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 54% of fish stocks are overexploited due to commercial fishing. A bright spot in this discussion could be found in Hong Kong, where, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), two of the city’s major seafood suppliers have found a doubling of sales of sustainable seafood between 2010 to 2013. This increase is the equivalent of 1,200 tonnes in sustainable seafood!
Waste is a severe catalyst in the food crisis, and while there is no exact method of measuring food wastage worldwide, the estimate, according to the Global Food Report conducted in 2013, is that 30% to 50% of the food produced each year is wasted.
Food and Our Health
The predominance and growing popularity of processed food filled with empty calories has placed tremendous strain on the health care system. The World Health Organisation estimates that 42 million children under the age of 5 are overweight or obese. The children of today are the first generation predicted to live shorter lives than their parents. In America, it will cost the government $425,000 (USD) to treat every child diagnosed with type 2 diabetes throughout his lifetime. This prompted Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York at the time of the announcement, to propose a ban on supersized sodas. Although the ban was rejected, the proposal illustrated that our eating habits affect not only ourselves but our entire society, and that even small changes have the potential to create large-scale behaviour shifts.
Small Changes, Big Results
We have infinite demands, yet we live on a finite planet, and the only solution for our planet’s well-being is the move towards sustainable development. Much of this catalyst lies in the consumer’s power to choose.
Slowly yet surely, steps are made towards a more sustainable future with the growing popularity of nose-to-tail gastronomy, as well as the organic food movement and locavore culture. By fully utilising every part of an animal, and by choosing produce that is grown locally and under organic guidelines, we can significantly reduce the strain on our planet. Ultimately, to quote Anna Lappe, a prominent author and sustainable food advocate, “each time we spend money we are casting a vote for the type of world we want”.
How We Can Help:
It’s easy to buy a processed burger at a nearby fast food joint, but you’re not going to get many nutrients from it. Instead, try cooking simple meals at home using sustainable ingredients. By supporting farms that use environmental, humane methods, you are empowering these producers to grow and expand, leading to the spread of more sustainable practices. Whenever possible, buy from local producers, as their products are the freshest and have the smallest carbon footprint thanks to short transportation lines.
It’s important to consider quality over quantity. Meat from ethical, environmentally-conscious producers will likely cost more than large-scale industrialized meat enterprises, due to more stringent regulations on animal feed and the welfare of the livestocks, but the quality of the product is also significantly higher. Livestock raised on high quality grains, hay, or grass and allowed to exercise outside of cages produce healthier, tastier meats with lower cholesterol and saturated fats. Although the cost is higher, the nutrition content is also greater. Therefore, eating higher quality meats less often is both beneficial to health and budget. Choosing meats from sustainable farms, as close as possible to where you live will mean fresher products that taste better without costing the earth.
If the majority of crops grown were fed to humans, feeding 9 billion people by 2050 would be manageable. However, nearly half of the crops grown today are fed to livestock, or converted to industrial products such as biofuels. Either a shift towards a less meat-intensive diet or a way to produce meat more sustainably is needed in order for our planet to continue supporting our growing population. A diet that consists of 20 percent animal protein and 80 percent plant-based nutrients would revolutionise the way we treat our planet today. Eating high quality meat, but less frequently, would also do wonders for our health and the environment.
We love to eat in Hong Kong, yet, according to Feeding Hong Kong, 3,200 tonnes of food ends up in landfills each day. As food rots, it releases significant amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, creating a layer of greenhouse gases that trap heat. It is estimated that the remaining capacity of our landfills will be exhausted by 2018. We can all do our part in reducing waste by eating leftovers, ordering smaller portions at restaurants, and supporting waste reduction community programs such as Feeding Hong Kong. A reduction in menial items such as plastic straws, plastic bags and napkins not only help our landfills, but also save us money. So next time, bring your own reusable shopping bag, carry your lunch in personal tupperware, and sip from a refillable water bottle!
Collectively, we have the power to create enormous change through our daily decisions. We have all the tools needed to reform the way we grow and use food, and we are all responsible for casting our votes on the way we want our planet to grow with each purchase and each mouthful. Food and health, farmers and governments, animals and ecosystems, dining and economics - everyday, we are able to play our part in changing the future.
See more: Where to Shop for Sustainable Produce in Hong Kong [released July 8th]