Our food system is broken and not delivering on human or planetary health

The goal should be a lighter food footprint while feeding ourselves well

If every one of the five million of us in Ireland are lucky enough to enjoy three meals a day, that represents, in theory, 15 million opportunities a day for us to vote with our forks and make choices about the impact we have on our planet.

The food we buy, eat, and throw away plays an enormous role in climate change, but with an increasingly complex food system putting greater distance between us and the sources of our food, can our individual food choices really make a difference and reduce our environmental impact?

Agricultural land-use and food production account for around one third of global anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Some 70 per cent of our most precious resource, fresh water, goes to agriculture.

The global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, causing deforestation, emptying our oceans and polluting waterways, leading to loss of eco-systems, insect collapse, and loss of plant and animal species.

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Industrial-scale monoculture farming is responsible for severe land and soil degradation. In turn, climate change threatens food security. It is a vicious circle: extreme weather events like heavy rainfall, flooding, droughts and wildfires caused by climate change directly impact food production, putting food supplies at risk. 
Of course, we need to produce food. The global food system has responded to meet the challenge of a rapidly growing global population, increasing per capita supply of food calories by a third since the 1960s. Yet amid plentiful production, globally about one third of food that is produced is wasted, and over 800 million people go hungry.

Alongside growing hunger, two billion adults worldwide are now overweight or obese, driven by rapid changes in dietary patterns. We now face a triple burden of malnutrition; alongside hunger and obesity there is an increase in micronutrient deficiencies from nutritionally inadequate diets.

Dietary patterns

This is a picture of a food system that is broken, that is neither delivering on human nor on planetary health. It is a picture of a system that needs to change and fast. When it comes to climate the IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change) makes it clear; without major changes to our current dietary patterns and the way we produce food, there is simply no way to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

While it is by no means simple, we know where many of the solutions lie. 
We know that we need to dramatically reduce reliance on fossil-fuel fertilisers, chemical pesticides and herbicides through regenerative or agroecological practices to halt deforestation, give more space to nature, introduce more diversity and biodiversity on farms, transition away from diets high in animal products, which are the most resource-intensive and polluting, towards diets richer in plants, and reduce food loss and waste.

Many changes need to happen long before the food reaches the shelves, so can the way we shop and eat make a difference?

Dr Christian Reynolds, senior lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy, City University of London, believes it can. “We need to focus on less impact and better quality all the way through the chain. For consumers this means thinking about how much we are consuming and how much we are wasting.”

Reducing our intake of meat, especially red meat, and dairy is one of the highest impact changes we can make. Red and processed meat reduction is also recommended for health. Yet this remains a contentious and polarising issue, with some people staunchly defending their right to eat meat and others passionately promoting veganism.

Reynolds says balance is possible. “The good news is that you don’t have to give up eating meat and dairy entirely, but we do need to think about substantially reducing the amount. Less and better is a good mantra.”

He suggests starting by giving careful consideration to portion sizes of everyday foods, reducing meat and dairy portions or substituting some for other ingredients. “By halving the amount of meat or dairy, you are immediately halving your impact.”

Buying less meat and dairy may allow room to consider where and how it is produced, and the possibility of buying organic or from a local farm with low impact and high welfare systems.

Alternatives

What about dairy and alternatives? Many people have looked to plant-based milks to reduce their impact. Common ones like almond, rice, coconut or soy milks are produced far from our shores, and can come with their own issues around water usage, labour abuses,and biodiversity loss. Oat milk is a good alternative that can be produced much closer to home.

Any monoculture cropping with pesticide use has negative impacts, however, so choosing organic where possible makes sense.

When it comes to so-called “fake meats”, many are highly processed. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs), most produced by a handful of powerful multinational companies, have increasingly taken the space in our shopping basket. These are complex foods with long lists of ingredients, many of which we may not recognise, sourced from across the globe, making their impact harder to quantify.

The most notorious of these ingredients is palm oil, the production of which is associated with destruction of rainforests and labour abuses in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Every additional stage of processing also adds to carbon footprint, and UPFs typically contain high levels of fat, salt and sugar. Avoiding these makes sense for our health and the planet.

“Alternatives fill a useful space for people who want to do better for the planet,” says Reynolds, “A highly processed plant-based alternative will almost certainly have a lower environmental impact than a processed product containing meat.”

But his advice instead is that we increase our intake of fruit and vegetables. “Meat should take a much smaller place and we should take pride in the other items on our plate, the plants”, says Reynolds. “And it makes sense that these should be sourced within Ireland where possible, or as close by as they can be.”

A Bord Bia survey in 2020 found that on average, Irish people eat just over half the recommended healthy intake of seven portions of fruit and vegetables daily.

Cause for hope

There is a recurring theme here that gives cause for hope. “Planetary health and human health are inextricably intertwined,” says Dr Colin Sage, an academic and researcher focussed on food systems and sustainability, and author of Environment and Food. “We need to put more focus on the fact that what is good for the planet is also good for human health.”

Can we turn the huge ship that is the global food system quickly enough to avoid catastrophe?

Not without systems and policy change. says Reynolds. “Asking 5 million people in Ireland, and billions across the globe, to change their buying and eating patterns takes a lot of nudging, requires a lot of behaviour change. But if the changes are made upstream, in industry and at policy level, there are fewer levers that need to be moved and more impact downstream.”

Can we rely on the private sector and governments to make the urgent changes that are needed? A huge amount of power, and most of the profit, in the food system lies with an increasingly concentrated number of large players in the ‘middle spaces’ between producers and consumers; large multinationals who process, package, distribute and retail food.

These companies and their sophisticated sales and marketing strategies hold huge sway over our daily decisions around food. They are aware of consumers’ growing concerns around both health and sustainability, and keen to offer “solutions”. But their job is to make a profit by convincing you that you need their product. The same big brands that have corporate websites declaring their sustainability credentials fetishise double beefburgers, topped with bacon, and dripping with cheese in lavish marketing campaigns. “There is a huge gulf between the small number of hugely powerful players and the growing number of citizens who are aware of the need for change,” says Sage.

Right path

If we can’t trust big industry to set us on the right path, can we trust policymakers?

At international level there is increasing focus on agroecology and nature-friendly farming, and the EU Farm to Fork Strategy sets a path to more environmentally sustainable food systems. But the road to reform is long, with the current system propped up by agricultural subsidies, cheap labour and powerful lobbies defending the status quo.

At a national level – with our continued export-focussed reliance on beef and dairy, limited supports for horticulture, and less than 2 per cent of land being farmed organically – we do not seem prepared to move in the direction we need to go just yet.

“Urgency needs to rear its head,” says Sage, “We can’t tinker around the fringes, we know fundamental change is needed. As citizens we need to support and defend the voices calling for a real reform agenda.”

That real reform agenda was called for by the Environmental Pillar, a network comprising more than 30 Irish environmental NGOs, during the creation of the Government’s latest agri-food strategy. Food Vision 2030 was adopted by Government earlier this year despite the Environmental Pillar pulling out of the process over concerns about its lack of environmental ambition. Environmental representatives held one seat on the 32-person committee that created the strategy, which was largely comprised of industry and farm sector representatives.

So,  how can we drive this necessary change ourselves? Sage sees reason for hope in the growing awareness amongst citizens and especially the young.

“There is power and energy in the youth discourse; we need to capture that spirit of the youth climate movement for food. Greta [Thunberg] is calling out the fancy words, the ‘blah blah blah’ coming from on high, but with no real action. We need to call out that ‘blah blah blah’ happening around food.”

Solutions

Sage believes solutions will be found in community responses at local level.

“We need to look at collective responses. Things like local food-growing initiatives and food policy councils are powerful on a small scale. Small farmers supplying their local communities, models like CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture] are important. We need more of them, and they need to be supported.

“Farmers and consumers have more in common than they think – they need to be allies. But farmers will need to produce the food people want to eat and consumers need to eat more of the products that farmers in Ireland – indeed, in their region – can produce. This means cutting back on mangoes and eating more Tipperary apples, choosing Galway chard instead of Peruvian asparagus.”

If we want to reduce the impact of our food on the planet, we need to think about how our food is produced as much as what we choose to eat. But we also need to think about where power lies; how to put more power back into the hands of farmers and citizens, how we take back control and value from the “middle spaces”.

Voting with your fork means not just what you spend your money on, but where and how. It also means using your voice, and your actual vote, to bring about the changes we know are necessary.

Want to make a start at reducing your food footprint?

Here are some simple things that we can all do to tread more lightly while feeding ourselves well.

Shop savvy: To prevent waste the old familiar tips apply; plan, make a list, don't shop hungry. Be realistic about what fits your lifestyle, time and skills. Shop in way that helps you minimise waste, whether that is one big weekly shop or little and often. If items you buy regularly like milk, bread, potatoes, chicken breast, apples or bananas ever go to waste, change your buying habits.

Think about the how: Reducing the quantity of meat and dairy may free up some budget to focus on how it is produced, sourcing organic or more direct from local farms using nature-friendly and regenerative practices, and supporting small local producers. Check out irishorganicassociation.ie, organictrust.ie, and farmingfornature.ie

Think produce, not products: Big food companies are eager to convince you that you need their product. But if you can opt for less processed, locally-produced seasonal raw ingredients it will likely benefit your health, your local economy and the planet.

Mix it up: Legumes, which include peas, beans and lentils, are nutritious and improve soil health. Have cans of beans on hand to add to dishes to replace some or all of the meat. Replacing half the meat in a burger with chopped sautéed mushrooms results in delicious flavour while halving the negative impact.

Go blue: Farmed fish gets a bad rap, but sustainable aquaculture may allow us to continue to include fish in our diets while protecting our wild species. Bivalve molluscs like rope mussels, oysters and clams are plentifully produced on our coast and have a very low environmental impact. Several farmers sell direct online.

Get closer: Shopping local is about shortening supply chains, getting closer to the source of the food, and giving a better return to farmers. If possible consider buying direct from a local farmer through a box scheme or at a market. See openfoodnetwork.ie or search online to find a local organic veg box scheme or CSA.

Chill: Ensuring your fridge temperature is set at 5C or lower will add at least one day extra shelf life to your food, helping to reduce waste. Search "Chill the Fridge out" online for a handy guide to major fridge brands. If you have a freezer make good use of it too. Freeze things like bread and cheese pre-sliced or milk in portion size quantities to use as required.

Cook clever: Up to a startling 61 per cent of emissions from food can come from the home-cooking phase, particularly where energy-gobbling ovens are used to cook small quantities. Slow cookers, pressure cookers and air fryers are more energy efficient if cooking for one or two people. When using your oven consider cooking extra and refrigerating or freezing for another day. Or use the microwave to speed up cooking of things like baked potatoes and finish off in the oven.

Choose renewable: a relatively pain-free and impactful step is to ensure your electricity supply is renewable. Check cru.ie for accredited price comparison websites where you can filter results to find a renewable energy supplier.

Ruth Hegarty is the director of egg&chicken consulting, an agency dedicated to food policy, advocacy and education, and to the development of diverse and sustainable food businesses.