GLOBAL HEALTH: Living within the Earth’s ecological limits requires a global consumption pattern in balance with the earth’s biocapacity. That means making healthy, sustainable food choices, say specialists. Picture: THINKSTOCK
GLOBAL HEALTH: Living within the Earth’s ecological limits requires a global consumption pattern in balance with the earth’s biocapacity. That means making healthy, sustainable food choices, say specialists. Picture: THINKSTOCK

OUR planet is taking strain, and while global efforts are under way to address the environmental issues, the question is: is it time to extend our concern for the environment, and our efforts to protect it, to what we put on our plates?

Food production and food choices are placing massive pressure on the environment. Our typical modern-day diet is too high in saturated fat, sugar and salt, and too low in fibre, which is both bad for our health and the environment, from a greenhouse gas emission perspective.

According to the Word Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa, “Living within the Earth’s ecological limits requires a global consumption pattern in balance with the Earth’s biocapacity.”

The WWF established an initiative detailed in its report titled Livewell: A Balance of Healthy and Sustainable Food Choices, aimed at improving sustainability in terms of food production, trade and consumption, and encouraging individuals to be environmentally responsible. It urges us to think about the impact our food choices have on the environment, and provides guidance on ways of adapting our diets and lifestyle practices to reduce our carbon footprint.

Food for extra thought

Concern centres issues such as greenhouse gas emissions produced during the production and distribution of our food, the depletion of natural resources, the destruction of forests and the clearance of land for growing food or grazing livestock, and water used for growing feed crops.

The meat industry is a significant contributor to the destruction of the environment. According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), called Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, livestock, particularly cattle, are responsible for a significant portion (18%) of greenhouse gas emissions. Their contribution to these emissions is even greater than that of transport.

This is a result of animal production (respiratory process, methane and nitrous-oxide emissions from manure as well as enteric fermentation from ruminants), deforestation for pasture and feed production, feed transport, manufacturing, and the application of chemical fertilisers for feed crops, as well as the transport, processing and marketing of meat products. Freshwater resources are scarce and livestock (from feed production to product supply) are another major contributor to the depletion of this precious resource.

The planet’s oceans are under pressure and overfishing is having devastating effects, depleting fish stocks and resulting in certain species becoming critically endangered. Some of the fishing methods used destroy the delicate balance of the marine ecosystems and habitats that support marine life. A 2010 FAO report states that “85% of the world’s fish stocks are either overexploited or exploited to their maximum”.  It also estimates that “approximately a quarter of what is caught is thrown back, often dead, and wasted”.

It is indeed time, and there is no better time than right now, to start making small, simple changes to our diets that will benefit both our health and our environment. Start by applying the WWF’s five Livewell principles, which can help reduce our negative impact on our precious environment.

1. Eat more plants

Enjoy fruit and vegetables and aim for five a day — a minimum of three portions of vegetables and two fruit portions daily. Vegetables and fruit have protective health effects and play a role in chronic disease prevention, including cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Experiment with varieties you don’t usually eat. Buy locally grown and in-season fruit and vegetables (they are usually tastier and cheaper too) and try your hand at growing your own veggies and herbs.

2. Waste less food

Thirty-three percent of the food planted worldwide is wasted. Planning meals ahead of time and using a shopping list can help reduce waste by allowing for better use of your purchases and cutting down on unnecessary buys. Household food waste can also be minimised by checking use-by dates and taking these into consideration when planning meals for the week ahead. Use your leftovers and start composting and recycling.

3. Eat less meat and dairy

Meat, be it red or white, can be a tasty complement rather than just a centrepiece of a good meal. It is unnecessary to eliminate any foods groups. Rather enjoy smaller portions. It is about balancing the consumption of types of food that have high greenhouse gas emissions with those that have lower emissions, and shifting our intake to more eco-friendly proteins that will have both environmental and health benefits. Dairy and meat are both sources of saturated fat, and diets high in saturated fat are associated with negative health effects.

Plan one or two meat-free meals a week, for example, a meat-free Monday dinner using vegetarian sources of protein, such as dried beans, lentils or chickpeas. They are versatile and can easily be incorporated into a diet.

4. Eat less processed food

Processed foods tend to be more resource intensive to produce and often contain higher levels of sugar, fat and salt. Try not to rely on ready-prepared meals and processed foods and eat more home-prepared meals, which also allows you to have more control over what you are eating.

5. Eat certified food

Buy food that meets a credible certified standard. There are certification schemes and initiatives aimed at minimising the detrimental impact on the environment. Some of these aim to help consumers identify and choose foods when shopping that are less likely to have a negative environmental effect, by placing their logos on the product labels. Examples are GreenChoice and the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (see the WWF South Africa’s list of ecofriendly shopping tips below for more information).

GreenChoice was created to “support sustainable agriculture and marine initiatives’ efforts to secure ecosystem health and it aims to raise awareness of the environmental impacts associated with the production of food, flowers and fibres”.

Check out the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative lists for the most sustainable and environmentally friendly seafood options and for advice on how to avoid overexploited species. Choose wisely in restaurants and when shopping. Species on the green list are the best choices as they can tolerate current fishing pressure better and are caught or farmed using environmentally friendly methods.

Although species on the orange list can be legally sold by registered commercial retailers, we need to consider the impact, as these species are either overfished or the type of fishing method used to catch them is harmful to the environment or to the biology of the species.

Red-list species are unsustainable, cannot handle commercial fishing pressure and are illegal to sell in South Africa. They may be caught only for recreational purposes if one has a valid recreational fishing permit.

The WWF does do not specifically favour or recommend seasonal, organic or Fairtrade products, because although it supports these initiatives, it says these are not always an affordable option for everyone. There is also a lot of conflicting information on these topics, as well as different certification and farming practices, making it a complicated issue requiring more research.

The FAO defines sustainable diets as those “with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to a healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources.”

However, the issue of sustainable diets is complex and more research is needed, as there are still significant gaps in our understanding of what exactly should comprise a sustainable diet .

Given the magnitude of the problem and the dire consequences of our actions, it is prudent to start making changes now, based on current knowledge. We can choose to continue to live and eat in blissful ignorance or explore more ways in which we can make a difference by adapting our diets and making food and lifestyle choices that will help reduce South African’s carbon footprint.

The WWF South Africa provides the following ecofriendly shopping tips:

• Always look for labels indicating that the product is sustainably produced and environmentally friendly. If ecolabelled goods are not available, ask for them. Good businesses listen to their customers.

• Buy local: make the “green” choice and choose local over imported products where possible.

• Say cheers: when buying your next bottle of wine look out for the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative label. The label, which features a sugar bird on a protea, serves to identify and endorse wines that have been produced in accordance with the initiative’s conservation requirements.

• Fishy business: only buy seafood from the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative’s green list. Download the pocket guide or SMS your fish query to 079 499 8795 to find out which seafood is the responsible choice.

• Buy fresh, loose fruit and vegetables if possible. Even better, grow your own vegetables.

• Look out for grass-fed and free range meat products. Sustainable livestock production is critical to the future of grasslands biodiversity and the South African livestock industry. The WWF South Africa is supporting a national grasslands programme, co-ordinated by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, to help protect this important source of life. Insist that your meat comes from farmers who have good practices in terms of managing the land, using pesticides and dealing with predators.

• Buy only what you need. Excess will simply be thrown away.

• Packaging: don’t pay for unnecessary packaging that may not be good for your health anyway. Make a statement — leave the packaging at the retailer. Use a reusable container for school and work lunches. Always take reusable bags to the shops or, even better, buy an ecofriendly shopping bag.