Food, glorious food: how does it affect climate change?
Written by Hannah Robbins
Another July gone, and another British heatwave, and one that broke records no less. How very British of me to open with talking about the weather.
Yes, the summer heat is a lovely change from the rain, or cloudy, cooler English climate. But that’s just it isn’t it – it’s a change. A drastic one. An abnormal one.
If anything, this change has reinforced that time is running out for our planet; as if it really needed to be reinforced, but that’s not quite the point. The point is that we need to move faster towards a sustainable future – making the big changes now is what matters.
A big part of combatting climate change is reducing emissions – especially considering recent findings that the Amazon is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it is absorbing.
Amazon rainforest turning from carbon sink-to-source
Life in rainforests is always operating at a specific balancing point: rainforests are highly sensitive to change, be that in rainfall or moisture levels, fires or prolonged droughts. These changes can result in areas losing trees and shifting to a savannah-like mix of woodland and grassland.
It’s quite common knowledge that the Amazon rainforest acts as a massive carbon sink for our Earth – it’s swathes of trees soak up tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. However, environmentalists and climate scientists have been studying the rainforest for many years. What I’m going to specifically talk about in this article is what’s called the ‘tipping point’.
The tipping point is when the large-scale deforestation and destruction, otherwise known as the dieback of the Amazon rainforest reaches a point of no return. A point where the ecosystems would just unravel at an alarming rate. It would become a savannah – not really a forest, but not really a desert either.
You’re probably overwhelmed now with jargon – dieback, tipping point, carbon sink… the world of sustainability really is chock-a-block with it. But, the key takeaway from this is that the Amazon rainforest is critical to Earth’s climate. It produces between 6% and 20% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and plays a vital role in influencing our weather.
If it disappears, the worlds climate patterns will drastically shift.
Don’t jump to conclusions: it’s not as hopeless as it seems
You may have read many news outlet sharing articles with apocalyptic-like headlines over the last few weeks about the state that the Amazon rainforest is in. that’s because a paper published this year has found that large sections of the Amazon rainforest are now emitting more carbon dioxide than they are absorbing – what’s being called a sink-to-source switch.
Specifically, manmade fires linked to cattle ranching and cattle feed growing in southeastern Amazonia are causing both direct deforestation, as well as ecosystem stress and an intensification of the dry season—leading to greater tree mortality and instances of fire nearby too.
Despite the Guardian and other news outlets publishing petrifying titles, the situation in the Amazon isn’t as game-over as you might think.
Treehugger points out that:
“This is unequivocally very bad news, especially as it comes on top of other news suggesting we may be closer to a dramatically changed and more dangerous climate than previous models would have suggested.
The paper […] does not paint a picture of irreversible decline driven by unstoppable natural forces. Instead, the team of authors, led by Luciana V. Gatti, point to significant human influence as the main driving factor in the switch.”
It’s also worth remembering that this switch is one of many milestones that scientists are studying the Amazon rainforest for. It’s not a case of the ceiling being hit that’s it, no going back – there are many other crucial things to consider before we chuck the towel in.
ClimateTippingPoint summarises it quite nicely in this twitter thread.
A brief note on this: this is not yet the big “#Amazon dieback” #TippingPoint (where dieback becomes self-perpetuating across most of the rainforest) as the net CO2 emissions are still largely being driven by degradation and so can still be limited – but it’s still not good. 1/7 https://t.co/sQco0HxyuK
— ClimateTippingPoints.info (@ClimateTipPoint) July 14, 2021
The main point they’re trying to make is that this carbon emissions tipping point is one of the key milestones, and that whilst there’s evidence in the paper that other milestones are nearing, we’re simply not there yet. The situation is dire – but it’s still fixable.
But what can we do to help? Reading this left me thinking “How can little old me make any difference to this?” Well, aside from putting pressure on the government, supporting environmental organisations efforts to build awareness and enact change, there’s plenty we can do at home that will add up to big change.
Food waste is a big contributor to climate change
When food is wasted and put into landfill, it produces methane & carbon dioxide – these are two of the main greenhouse gases (GHG) that contribute heavily to climate change.
So simply put, more food waste in landfill = more GHG emissions = negative impact on the environment = climate change. This is very over-simplified, but you get the idea.
Here are some more hard-hitting facts about the impact of food waste:
- If food waste was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of GHGs – after the US and China.
- One third of global GHG emissions comes from agriculture.
- About 30% of the food produced is wasted – that’s around 1.8 billion tonnes a year.
- If food waste was eliminated globally, we’d eradicate 8% of our total emissions.
These are pretty big figures – and it doesn’t’ stop there either. They only get worse when you look at high versus low-income countries. Around 40% food is wasted in low income countries, usually due to poor infrastructure, before it even makes it into people’s homes. Sometimes it can be due lack of refrigeration, or for cultural reasons.
In high income countries, estimates indicate that households are responsible for 53% of all food waste in Europe. This drops ever so slightly for Canada, sitting at around 47%.
In these places, easy access to ample amounts of cheap food has made consumers less cautious about what they put on their plates and keep in their fridges.
Understanding exact amounts of household food waste is tricky
A Canadian study run by Kate Parizeau, professor at the University of Guelph examined the food wasted by 94 families. It found that approximately 3kg was wasted by each family each week. That equates to 23.3kg carbon emissions, around the same amount as the average baggage weight allowance on flights. Imagine that – full of food that no one eats.
Not many studies choose to delve this deep into our bins. And when asked to record what they waste in diaries, people tend to underestimate what they are throwing away.
“But a lack of precise data shouldn’t stop us trying to tackle the problem” Parizeau says, “. We know just by the audits that we’ve done, it is excessive. There’s so much edible food that ends up in the trash.”
By simply rethinking how you shop and cook, in most high-income countries at least, it should be possible to reduce the amount we waste and so lessen our contribution to climate change.
“We know that there’s a whole bunch we can do at the household level,” says Parizeau.
Food waste has actually fallen in the UK
Approximately 68kg of food is wasted in households each year per person, according to 2020 data from the British waste and recycling charity WRAP. That’s around 4.5 million tonnes. This, surprisingly, is approximately a 7% drop in food waste between 2015 and 2018, meaning things are moving in a positive direction.
Plus, looking back to when WRAP began working on reducing household food waste 14 years ago, “a total of 1.4 million tonnes of food has been saved […] compared to 2007 levels – enough each year to fill 150,000 food collection trucks which, if placed end to end, would stretch from London to Prague.
That being said, I can’t help but cast my mind back to the panic buying of 2020 and wonder – how will the past 18 months have affected this? Hmm. Perhaps food for thought?! (Couldn’t resist a pun there!)
That’s not to say though that there isn’t still a lot of work to be done. And we’ve got immense opportunities to reduce GHG emissions through effective food waste management as well as through being more eco-conscious food shoppers too.
10 tips to help reduce your food waste
So, without further ado, here are our top ten tips for reducing food waste, and managing our food shop sustainably, without compromise.
- Plan ahead – perhaps the most hassle some, “adult” and boring tip, but it’s still true. Planning meals ahead and buying only exactly what you need for them will help drastically reduce impulse buys and their subsequent food waste.
- Swap out for less carbon-heavy crops – I’m not saying you’ve got to be a vegan or stop buying your favourite foods but mix it up a bit. Try out dairy-free alternatives (not just soya), reduce the amount of red meat you eat, see what you can challenge yourself to do.
- Buy local produce wherever possible – probably a no-brainer and certainly a well known one, but no less a crucial point. Plan your weekly shop around the farmers market so you can get all the locally grown goodies into your fridge. Also a top tip from me: bakery bread freezes and defrosts so well!
- Optimise your food storage – the way you store your food really help prolong its life. For example, did you know that potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers and onions should never be refrigerated? And that bananas, avocados, peaches and pears emit a gas while ripening that would spoil foods like apples, potatoes and berries? This goes for leftovers too – make use of reusable containers, silicone lids and more.
- Use up your food scraps – find different ways to use up your food scraps like peels, rinds, stalks and other parts of food that you would normally discard when cooking. You can make breadcrumbs from stale bread, or plant fertiliser from fermented banana peels. Kale and chard stems are packed with fibre and nutrients, making them a great addition to smoothies. The tops of beets, strawberries and carrots also make great add-ins. (Hint: We’ve got some great recipe ideas in this months EcoBabble free download, so check your email!).
- Keep the skin on – fruit and vegetable skins contain so many good nutrients, vitamins and healthy fats. Skip the peeling and leave the skin on when cooking with them! It’s good for you and good for the planet.
- Give your freezer a good workout – freezing food is another great way of managing food waste. As I mentioned, I slice then freeze bakery bread to have for breakfast and lunches. I’ve also recently tried making garlic, oil and herb ice cubes to use for cooking, so that my garlic doesn’t go off too quick. You can freeze many types of fresh produce, as long as it’s in an airtight container. Got a celery that’s gone floppy? Pop it in the freezer to use for a smoothie, or soup recipe!
- Understand best before and use by dates – best before are just recommendations and use by dates are just a ballpark. If it doesn’t have mould growing, it smells fine and looks mostly good, you’re likely safe to eat it. If not – freeze and get googling for uses and recipes!
- Portion control is key – probably one of the more difficult ones is portion control. This will be for both your health and for food waste benefits. Be mindful of how hungry you are and take that into account – as my mum always said to me, don’t have eyes bigger than your stomach.
- Eat the “ugly” produce – 50 million tonnes of fresh fruit & vegetables are being discarded across Europe every year for aesthetic reasons. It all tastes the same, comes from the same place, so we should all eat it! Buy the wonky veg, and perfectly imperfect fruit. I dare you.
There are far more tips when it comes to being smart with your food, but these should be a good start.
Make sure you keep an eye out for more sustainable living advice, guides and tips landing in your next instalment of EcoBabble!
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