Written by National Youth Council Student News Editor Andrew Kim

With Thanksgiving and the holidays rolling around, this month’s monthly initiative is on the agricultural industry and food management. That means considering how the food you eat is sustainable and what impact your choices and the agricultural industry has on global health. Everything from the packaging of your food to what goes on your plate has a large impact.

Choosing sustainable packaging is one way to reduce our environmental impact. Examples of sustainable packaging include using raw or recycled materials, minimizing the production process, or creating a circular economy based on reusability are some methods. It is important to take into account social factors. For example, plant-based packaging might mean clearing out forests. There are several different techniques or products that can be considered eco-friendly. Some examples are boxes that are made of recycled paper. Reusable glass jars, paper bags made up of recycled paper, paper bottles that are compostable, reusable straws, and reusable bags. There are some companies that either adopt sustainable techniques or are making the initiative to are L’Oreal, Coca-Cola, Puma, Nestle, and McDonald’s. L’Oreal has implemented responsible packaging policies. They replaced classic materials with alternatives. The other companies have made pledges to have 100% of packaging come from renewable or recyclable sources or to cut down on the amount of packaging by a significant amount by a certain year.

Meatless Mondays are another fun challenge. This would entail avoiding eating meat all day on Mondays. Last year on the council, we were all challenged to actually implement this and not eat meat on Mondays. It was a small sacrifice to make that had big changes. But why Mondays? Research has shown that on Mondays, people are more likely to be willing to try something new. It is seen as a new beginning so people feel more motivated to try new things. Why meatless? By not eating meat, we are reducing our carbon footprint, and helping to conserve environmental resources. Around 75% of the land is used for livestock production. This obviously puts an enormous strain on the Earth’s resources. For context, skipping one serving of beef every Monday for a year saves the equivalent emissions to driving 348 miles in a car; Producing ONE quarter-pound beef burger uses 425 gallons of water – enough water to fill 10 bathtubs. Producing ONE quarter-pound beef burger uses up enough energy to power an iPhone for 6 months. 70 billion animals are farmed for food every year with 99% of meat, dairy and eggs are from factory farms. Factory farming is an intensive, industrialized business model for animal agriculture. Oftentimes this involves concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) with cramped living conditions for the animals. You can learn more about Meatless Mondays at this link here.

When thinking about the impact of what we eat, it is important to consider our carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide emissions from food include farming, processing, transportation, and waste. Many animal products produce more greenhouse gases compared to plant-based products due to their production of methane and carbon dioxide. On the other hand, plant-based protein sources don’t produce anywhere near as much greenhouse gases while growing. Additionally, products such as lamb and cheese are commonly imported to the U.S. which further increases their carbon footprint due to transportation.

The first step to understanding overconsumption is understanding metabolic food waste. It essentially corresponds to the amount of food leading to Excess Body Fat (EBF) and its impact on the environment expressed as carbon, water, and land footprint. Consumption of food that is constantly above the recommended calorie requirements by a growing number of people not only is a health risk but also puts more pressure on natural resources. Specifically, high energy foods are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Overconsumption also correlates to food waste. Food waste results in wasting the resources that went into making the food. Wasted food rots in the landfill and produces a significant amount of methane. Additionally, food waste ends up wasting nearly a quarter of our water supply (it is around 172 billion dollars in wasted water). According to Forbes Magazine, growing food that goes to waste ends up using up 21% of our freshwater, 19% of our fertilizer, 18% of our cropland, and 21% of our landfill volume. This just goes to show that the global food system is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the largest contributors to climate change.

Purchasing food from local farms and markets also has many benefits. Generally speaking, local food is tasty, healthy, safe, and supports green environmental practices compared to big food processing. Big food and processing refer to a few large companies dominating food production and sales. This results in more ambiguity as to where your food is really coming from and how ingredients are sourced. In many cases, profits are prioritized over the health of the consumer and planet. In contrast to this, local foods allow you to know where your food is coming from so that you can ensure you’re putting clean food into your body.

Food aesthetics also play a big role in our environmental impact. Consumers wanting aesthetic foods results in overproduction and discarding visually “imperfect.” This contributes to more than half of the food produced in the developed world being uneaten. One example of unsustainable food aesthetics would be the avocado. With a large recent rise in popularity, avocados are in higher demand. However, due to this high demand, there is more deforestation and soil degradation, not to mention that avocados have a large water footprint compared to other fruits and vegetables. To alleviate this issue, try to purchase more produce from local farms, buy as needed and not in bulk, eat foods that are in season as opposed to imported foods, and more importantly, be conscious of the issue.