by Erica Ramorino, Social Media and Special Projects, SustainableQATAR
We are what we eat! But do we act consciously enough to make the most of it? Who WANTS to be tired, fat, or die prematurely? Nobody! And yet, our eating habits suggest otherwise. This neglect comes at the cost of our personal health and the health of our environment. What we eat affects our health, energy, and happiness – the key to our quality of life.
This month’s blog and weekly challenges focus on food and how with our daily food choices we directly impact climate change positively or negatively.
One of the most exciting things about living in Qatar is that almost everything is available, which holds especially true for food. No matter how harsh our desert environment is, Qatar’s grocery stores and supermarkets offer an almost infinite array of food products from around the globe. Everything is available at all times, because it seems to be in season somewhere. Even very delicate and quickly perishable foods like berries and microgreens are flown into the country within a few hours. Problem is, often we take things for granted and stop asking questions like where food comes from, if it is in season, if it was harvested when ripe, and if it is healthy for us to eat at that very time.
On one hand, the abundance and availability is very convenient because it makes life in Qatar comfortable and pleasant. Everyone finds comfort and familiarity with the cornucopia of food the Qatari supermarkets have on offer.
On the other hand, however, we seem to forget or choose to ignore that our food choices have an impact not only on our health, but on the Planet’s health, too. Furthermore, through informed consumption we can influence others – both consumers and producers – to make better choices.
Long transport times, high carbon and water footprints, the impact of plastic packaging, and the use of pesticides are some of the main environmental challenges of the food industry. The good news is that each of us can make a big difference through our choices and shape our future by exercising our purchasing power!
There are currently 7.6 billion people on the planet, and access to nutritious food is a basic human right, as expressed in SDGs #2 Zero Hunger and #3 Good Health and Well-being. At the same time, the world’s food system is responsible for about one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases each year, according to a recent study published in Science. This impact includes agriculture and farming practices, feedlots for animals and meat production, as well as processing, packaging, and shipping and transport.
Several studies show that different foods have different impacts on the environment. In general, beef and lamb production have the biggest environmental footprint per gram of protein, while plant-based foods tend to have the smallest impact.
What does a plant-rich diet have to do with climate change? Plants use photosynthesis to convert the sun’s energy. When we eat plant-based foods, we consume the sun’s energy most efficiently. When animals eat plants, most of the energy is spent in their daily life, so we consume only a small part of it. In addition, raising animals for food consumes large amounts of water and the processing is very energy intensive, not to mention the byproducts of animal production, such as methane, whose greenhouse gas impact is 34 times greater than CO2.
Dan Barber in his book “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food” provides a wonderful insight of our food’s journey from field to plate and why some food tastes better than others and where Michelin Star restaurants source their food from. He examines soil, the land, the sea and concludes that “Good farming practices and the health of the land can only survive with a permanent food culture that sustains them.”
So, do we need to radically change our eating habits to contribute to a healthier world? Do we really need to say farewell to our favorite piece of meat or sausage forever? The answer is: no.
Some foods just taste so good, carry childhood memories, and provide comfort. Food is emotional! We must fully embrace these emotions with informed decisions and choices that serve our personal health and well-being, delight our friends and loved-ones, and simultaneously protect and preserve our land, soils, and sea to continuously produce tasty food.
For example, beef has the highest environmental footprint, with an average greenhouse gas impact of 14 Kg of CO2 for 0,50 Kg of protein produced. But it is not necessary that we completely stop eating it; we can just choose to eat it less. Even smaller shifts, like eating less meat and more plants, or switching from beef to chicken, can reduce our environmental footprint. This would mean a lot for the environment and our health will benefit, too.
Several studies tell us that vegetarian is better for the environment and for health – but it can be hard to make the change. Graham Hill has a powerful, pragmatic suggestion: be a weekday vegetarian. Be inspired by his TED Talk, Why I’m Weekday Vegetarian
Not only can we opt for a plant-based meal or a lower impact meat, but we can also choose our food to be as local as possible. Food that travels from countries far away from Qatar has a bigger carbon footprint than food grown locally. If we are not buying food grown in Qatar, then we should choose to buy those from nearby countries, so that we minimize our food-miles-traveled as much as possible.
Another simple way to cut our food-related environmental impact is to waste less food. Buying what we need and actually eating it — instead of letting it go bad and then tossing it out — means that the energy used to produce our food has been spent efficiently. Furthermore, choosing food with limited and/or sustainable packaging will help a lot. Plastic packaging is often unnecessary, and food safety can be guaranteed even without it, for example by properly washing our fruits and vegetables. Did you even notice how many fruits and vegetables come with their own packaging, for example bananas and citrus?
We can reduce our impact on the environment also by choosing organic food. In fact, organic farming methods have a much lower impact on the environment than conventional methods. Organic-certified farms must use natural methods for soil fertilization, weed and pest control. This also translates into healthier food, not contaminated with chemicals and pesticides.
Also important to look for on the shelves is sustainable seafood certification. Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or Friends of the Sea certifications guarantee that the seafood we buy is either caught or farmed in ways that consider the long-term vitality of harvested species and the well-being of the oceans, as well as the livelihoods of fisheries-dependent communities.
Building a sustainable Qatar goes beyond raising awareness about the importance of sustainability, environmental footprint, and low carbon economy. It helps us recognise that what we do, eat, and build is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships, that can not be reduced to single ingredients. It champions a whole class of integral, yet uncelebrated, pieces that are required to produce sustainable restorative growth and development.
We can all do our best – having fun and getting creative, trying new recipes and experimenting with different kinds of food until we find what works for us and the planet. At the same time, we must remember that no one is perfect. We must be aware of the impact of the food we choose, and make informed food choices to reduce our environmental footprint as much as possible without feeling guilty when we indulge in the occasional burger. So, let’s treat ourselves to the food we love sometimes, even if its sustainability performance is not stellar. Health, energy, and happiness is the key to increase our quality of life as we age. Let’s start today! Bon appétit!
- Al Jazeera, Food for thought: Food security, population growth & over-farming, 8 May 2018
- TED, Why I’m a weekday vegetarian, Feb 2010
- New York Times, Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered, 30 Apr 2019
- Geoff Livingston Photography, Vegetarian 5 Days a Week, 8 Feb 2013
- Science Direct, The price of protein: Review of land use and carbon footprints from life cycle assessments of animal food products and their substitutes, Dec 2012
- Science, Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, 01 Jun 2018