Published on 26 January 2018
Research

Beyond the impact on our own health, the food we eat also affects the health of the planet. In recent years, indicators have highlighted the harmful effects that certain agricultural practices and patterns of consumption have on the environment and biodiversity.

France, for instance, has seen a particularly steep decline in the number of birds due to the pollution caused by pesticide use and the intensification of human activities. And it’s a major issue: according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), 35% of global agricultural production depends on pollination.

Equally worrying is the sharp deterioration in freshwater quality owing to these same chemical pollutants produced by agricultural activities. What’s more, in France, agriculture is responsible for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions which accumulate in the atmosphere, disrupting the climate.

Eating less meat

One way to combat this environmental degradation is to encourage consumers to buy more environmentally friendly foods. Recent research—including studies by IPBES, which will present its findings in March 2018—has sought to clarify the environmental and nutritional impacts of food consumption.

For example, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the ECO₂ Initiative have drawn on scientific research to suggest possible improvements to the way we eat.

The main changes they suggest are to reduce the proportion of meat and fish in our diets in favor of pulses (beans, lentils, dried peas, soybeans, etc.) and tubers (potatoes, turnips, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, etc.), and to reduce consumption of processed foods in favor of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

In their report, WWF and ECO2 suggest eating no meat or fish three days a week. This would correspond to a 31% decrease in meat consumption and a 40% decrease in fish consumption.

For the same budget, we could enjoy a more balanced diet composed of better quality foods, including certified or labeled products (such as organic or Label Rouge). According to the same report, which compares the price of a standard shopping basket and a more eco-friendly basket, the money saved by buying less meat and fish can be used to introduce about 50% labeled foods.

According to numerous studies, reducing beef consumption would go a long way toward lowering greenhouse gas emissions and improving the long-term health of consumers. Eating meat is not necessarily an environmental absurdity, provided that it comes from livestock raised at least partially in the open air, because pastures allow for carbon sequestration in the soil.

Moving towards pasture-raised livestock would therefore preserve these pastures and allow more carbon to be stored in soil. Livestock would eat more grass, reducing the amount of farmland used to produce animal feed.

Producing “better” food

Other research focuses on improving food quality. The development of organic farming can be seen as a credible means of reducing the use of pesticides, which degrade the ecological status of surface freshwater and coastal waters, reduce terrestrial biodiversity and cause the decline of bee populations.

 

An increase in the production and consumption of pulses can also be considered. Not only are pulses particularly rich in vegetable proteins, fiber and minerals, they are also an excellent way to enrich agricultural land by fixing the nitrogen in the soil prior to planting other crops such as wheat or corn. This could enable a 20% decrease in the use of nitrogen fertilizer, which contributes to emissions of nitrous oxide—a greenhouse gas.

Of course, for the most part these practices are highly technical and difficult to explain simply to consumers.

Keeping the public informed

There is currently no obligation to inform consumers about the environmental impact of food products. The available information is often not enough to allow consumers to take products’ environmental characteristics into account, or to reward the efforts of producers trying to develop sustainable practices, especially when these practices have little or no impact on the food’s nutritional and organoleptic quality—i.e., taste, smell, texture, etc.

The lack of regulation on information requirements has left room for a vast array of certifications, labels, and claims to proliferate, with a varying degree of relevance to the environment.

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Furthermore, consumers are not always aware of the consequences of consumption practices such as food waste, pollution arising from their trips to the supermarket, or inadequate recycling of packaging.

A valuable step would be to introduce easy-to-interpret summary indicators that use a combination of colors and letters, similar to the labels indicating the energy efficiency of household appliances (“the energy label”).

However, given that environmental damage is diverse and complex and there is no scientific consensus as to its mechanisms, such an approach would require further research on the content and form of this environmental information and its potential impact on eating behaviors before being approved.

Beyond information and labels

Given the limits of information strategies, other instruments can be used in addition to labelling, such as tax or subsidy mechanisms based on the environmental impact of the product... although consumers are sometimes willing to spend more to maintain their eating habits.

Norms and standards are another way to impose a minimum level of quality and/or safety. This is already the case, for example, for maximum pesticide residue in food or in water. A similar standard could be introduced to oblige dairy farmers to supplement cattle feed with flaxseed, which would reduce the cows’ methane emissions and increase the omega-3 content of milk.

However, standards have the disadvantage of reducing product diversity, as they incite producers to meet only the minimum level of quality. They also restrict competition, as companies that are unable to bear the increase in production costs entailed by the use of new production processes are excluded from the market.

Until markets and political regulation put adequate instruments in place to guide consumers towards environmentally friendly food products, it is up to each of us individually to question the impact of our environmental practices.

Stephan Marette, INRA senior researcher, economist,  Agro ParisTech – Université Paris-Saclay and Maïmouna Yokessa, PhD student, INRA

The original version (in french) of this article was published on The Conversation.