Eating the planet
The food we eat makes a big difference to our environmental impact. According to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) it makes up 28 percent of our ecological footprint.
Here’s why it’s a problem and what we can do about it.
In wealthy countries like Australia, we have a bad habit of eating food that has been grown on the other side of the world. If your oranges were grown in California, they have travelled over 12,000 km to get to you. If they got here by boat, they’ve sent a lot of greenhouse gas into our atmosphere – even more if they got here by plane. The distance your food has travelled to get to you is referred to as food miles.
By eating locally produced food, instead of food with high food miles, you can make a positive difference to our environment.
These days, the fruit and vegetables available on our supermarket shelves barely change from season to season. It used to be that tomatoes were a summer vegetable and cauliflower a winter one. Now you can buy either whenever you want them.
If you are eating tomatoes in winter in Victoria, the truth is they have probably spent along time in truck to get to you. They’ve also spent time in cold storage, using additional energy and resources. Fruit and vegetables that are transported long distances are usually picked before they are ripe so they don’t rot on the journey. If they aren’t transported long distances, out of season fruit and vegetables are grown in greenhouses. Neither of these do much for flavour.
Although switching to seasonal eating habits can be a challenge, it comes with a lot of rewards. Eating food that is in season not only cuts food miles and energy, it also cuts your costs. Food is cheaper when it is in season and it also tastes better.
It also makes the first tomato or strawberry of the season an occasion to celebrate!
We are in the habit of buying excessively packaged food. Energy and resources go into producing packaging. It also causes problems when we go to dispose of it. If packaging isn’t recyclable, it goes into landfill, contributing to our overall waste problem.
If you buy in bulk, you should be able to significantly reduce the amount of packaging that goes into your bin, and save yourself some money on the way. Eating more fresh food and less processed products is another good way to avoid packaging. And making sure any packaging you buy is recyclable means that it ends up in the recycling bin instead of in landfill.
Read more about why packaging is a big environmental problem.
The environmental impact of our food also comes from the water that has gone into producing it. For instance, if you eat a serve of brocolli, you are also indirectly consuming the 41 litres or so of water that have gone into growing the broccoli. This is called ‘embodied water’. While this may sound like a lot, the figures get a lot higher when the water has gone into keeping an animal alive.
Meat contains a lot more embodied water than vegetables. One serve of chicken has roughly 1250 litres of embodied water in it. That’s because it includes the water consumed by the chicken over its lifetime, and the water it takes to get the chicken to your plate. A serve of steak has a whopping 4660 litres of embodied water.
You can make a positive difference to the environment just by eating less meat, especially beef.
Read our fact sheet on embodied water.
Holy burping cows!
Beef is the most problematic of the meat we eat. Beef has the added problem of methane emissions. Cows burp methane, which is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. If you take into account the burping a cow has done over it’s lifetime, a 230 kig beef steak is responsible for about five kilos of greenhouse gas.
Running out of fish
Our oceans are over fished, with some species almost or completely gone from many areas. This has a huge impact on our marine environment. Luckily, not all fish is at risk. If we make some smart decisions about which fish we eat, we can help protect fisheries and our marine environments.
Sharks, rays, deep sea fish and long-lived species should all be avoided. This means that flake and southern blue fin tuna are both bad options. Blue grenadier, whiting and Australian salmon are better alternatives.
Find out more about what type of fish you can eat here.
Environment Victoria doesn’t have a campaign on the marine environment, but some of our affiliates do.
Throwing it away
Australians throw a lot of food in the bin, which means that all of the water and energy that went into producing and transporting that food ends up in the bin too. In 2004, we threw out $5.9 billion worth of food – that’s more than 13 times what Australians donated to overseas aid agencies.
It doesn’t take much to reduce your food wastage. Make sure you don’t buy too much by making a list of what you need. Try not to cook too much and eat leftovers instead of throwing them out. Throwing out less food, is one of the easiest ways to reduce your environmental impact.
While there are a lot of problems with the way we produce and consume food, the good news is that it’s easy to reduce your ecological footprint straight away. With a few changes to what you buy, you’ll find you’re stepping much more lightly on the planet.
Beef production and greenhouse gas emissions, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 116, no 9, September 2008. Chow down on this
Thanks for all the fish, ABC Science. Dive in
Wasteful consumption in Australia, C. Hamilton, R. Denniss and D. Baker, The Australia Institute, 2005. Keep reading