People are increasingly aware that, when it comes to food, what is good for the environment is good for them too. In the current climate crisis, growing and consuming sustainable food is critically important. The Covid-19 pandemic has put agriculture all over the world under pressure, while the Russian war in Ukraine has further destabilised already fragile agricultural markets. And threats to our food security and nutrition from climate change – droughts, floods and heatwaves as well as sea level rise – are all set to grow due to global warming, especially affecting vulnerable regions.
For the European Union, reinforcing the resilience and sustainability of our food systems is a top priority, as set out in the EU Farm to Fork Strategy. It is an approach to producing our food in a way that is economically fair, supports people’s health and wellbeing, and does not harm the environment – and it’s also an important part of wider EU efforts to reach the net-zero emissions target, or climate neutrality, by 2050.
But it’s not just about action by governments – everyone has a role to play. As consumers, we have the power to push for change. Simple dietary and purchasing choices can make a difference, and make us healthier in the process.
What exactly is the problem with our food systems?
The food sector is currently responsible for almost a third of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide – and rising.
Methane emissions released by livestock and nitrous oxide emissions produced by some fertilisers contribute to climate change. The excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers degrades soil, water and air. In addition, as growing more crops has led to a rise in water use for irrigation, agriculture is now responsible for 70% of global freshwater consumption. Monocropping, or growing a single crop year after year on the same land, also significantly reduces biodiversity. And the lower the variety of plants, animals and other living things in an ecosystem, the less resilient it becomes.
How does farming and eating sustainably help?
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), changes to our lifestyles and behaviour, enabled by right policies, infrastructure and technology, could result in a 40–70 % reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. One such key change would be shifting to more balanced, sustainable, healthy diets, as well as reducing food loss and waste. Sustainable land management practices, such as conserving and reusing water, using organic fertilisers and planting trees on cropland, will also help to reduce agriculture’s overall environmental impact.
But it’s not just the environment that stands to benefit. Over-reliance on monocrops makes us vulnerable in the event of drought or crop disease, which can create supply issues. Growing a variety of crops can help ensure food security – that is to say, a situation in which everyone has access to enough safe and nutritious food.
Last but not least, eating a sustainable diet is good for our health. Here are a few tips on how to eat more healthily:
- eat more nutritious, unprocessed ‘whole foods’, such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, fish, and eggs;
- avoid ultra-processed foods like ready meals or sugary drinks that contain added ingredients, such as sugar, artificial flavourings and preservatives;
- eat fewer refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta, which contain less fibre, vitamins and minerals than, for example, brown bread and whole grain pasta;
- resist cholesterol-boosting trans fats found in fried and fast food;
- reduce your intake of red meat and salt – and while you’re at it, why not try a fully vegetarian or vegan diet for a while?
As Portuguese Climate Pact Ambassador and food security expert Amélia Delgado sees it, eating sustainably is also a vital part of a thriving regional culture. “The Mediterranean diet, for example, embraces local variations,” she says. “In Italy, Portugal, Spain or Greece, you will see cuisines based on local and seasonal ingredients.”
And again, everyone benefits. “Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems. They are economically fair and affordable, nutritionally balanced and healthy,” says Amélia.
Sustainability is also central to the EU Action Plan for the development of organic production.The aim is to have at least 25% of agricultural land in the EU under organic farming by 2030. This comes on top of other goals set out in the Farm to Fork strategy, such as a 50% cut in the use of pesticides and fertilisers or reducing food loss and waste, among others.
So, what needs to happen?
Amélia would like to see more efforts to improve food literacy – that is, people’s understanding of the impact that their food choices have on their health, community and the environment. “It’s not just about what you eat – it’s about what you don’t eat,” she stresses. “By choosing a fruit-flavoured soda instead of an apple, you are opting out of vitamins, antioxidants and fibre.” And of course, unsustainable food products are driving not only obesity and diseases, but also impacting climate change; for example, Amelia points out, ultra processed, packaged goods are often made from monocrops that are planted after forests have been cleared.
Raising awareness is therefore vital. Italian Climate Pact Ambassador Marina Kovari is a representative of the Slow Food Bologna movement, which aims to encourage local food cultures and traditions. In doing so, it brings consumers closer to producers, helping to underline the importance of locally sourced produce and regional biodiversity in creating tasty and nutritious dishes. Marina believes that the global Slow Food movement, which has supporters in over 150 countries, provides a viable, sustainable vision of how we might farm and consume food in years to come.
“This is not about solving the climate crisis with unicorn solutions, but showing how we can change the world by eating differently,” she says. “We are showing it is possible to produce and consume locally without the need for pesticides or other chemicals. That way, we can maintain our regional biodiversity and gastronomic traditions, while cutting down on our emissions.”
Like Amélia, Marina would also like to see a change of habits in public spaces, such as schools. “We can start fighting climate change with food, by encouraging kids to go local,” she says. “Being able to do the right thing is often a matter of knowledge and information.” The EU agrees – this is why the Farm to Fork strategy insists on improved information on the sustainability of our food, so as to empower consumers to make the right choices. And the EU’s Action Plan on Organic Farming puts forward actions to bring organic food closer to citizens, for example in public canteens and schools.
How can we green our own diets?
We can reduce our carbon footprint by making small, environmentally conscious food choices – without compromising on quality.
Buy seasonal and local
Go to a local farmers’ market or use a vegetable-box scheme instead of buying imported, out-of-season produce, which is often more expensive. Or, when looking for local and seasonal produce at the supermarket, be sure to check the country of origin on the label. If demand for locally sourced produce increases, then farmers will be able to focus on seasonal crops that are best suited to their local environments.
This solution can also be delicious. “Seasonal local food is often easy to cook,” says Amélia, who lives in the south of Portugal. “I like to cook broad beans – to eat with a slice of bread – with chopped onion and garlic, virgin olive oil, mint, coriander, parsley, cumin, white wine, and maybe a little meat.”
Similarly, Marina is very proud of Italy’s gastronomic heritage, pointing out that each region has its own specialities. “You really don’t need to buy products from abroad to eat well,” she says. “I love to eat and drink, and always try to taste and discover new food from my region.”
Put your green fingers to good use
It’s surprisingly easy to grow your own produce. Cherry tomatoes grow well in pots on sunny balconies, as do strawberries, lettuces and herbs, while raspberries, courgettes and pumpkins are very low maintenance to grow in the garden. Why not do a bit of digging to find out what varieties thrive in your region, and learn how to grow your own?
Be smart about grains
Not all crops are equal when it comes to environmental impact. Growing rice in paddy fields, for example, releases a lot of methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Why not buy quinoa, which is high in protein, iron, and other minerals and vitamins? Pulses such as beans and lentils are not only tasty and filling, but they also capture nitrogen from the air and store it in the soil, making it more fertile and reducing the need for nitrogen fertilisers. Or you could choose bread made from crops such as barley and sorghum, which are especially drought-resistant and require less water and maintenance than traditional wheat. Take a closer look at what’s available in your local bakery and don’t be shy to express your interest in different grains.
Give scraps a second chance
Many of us unwittingly throw away parts of plants that are actually edible. Carrot tops can be made into a pesto; beetroot leaves are delicious sautéed in olive oil; and broad-bean pods can replace aubergine in a parmigiana. If you like your vegetables peeled and deseeded, you can bake the skins to make crisps or roast pumpkin seeds for another healthy snack. Before throwing away your scraps, do a little research into whether they might actually be edible.
Swap red meat for white, and eat more plants
Meat, and particularly beef, drives climate change in two ways: first, because cows emit the greenhouse gas methane; and second, because forests are destroyed to create land for grazing and growing animal feed. While you don’t have to eliminate meat from your diet, you could try swapping beef for chicken or fish, and experiment with a new meat-free recipe once or twice a week.
Here’s what you can do next
Keep reading and learning about this issue. Try taking this quiz to find any gaps in your knowledge. Talk to friends and family about the benefits of sustainable eating – tell them how you’re changing your diet and share seasonal or plant-based recipes. It all helps inspire others to make greener choices.
Last but not least, why not make a pledge to eat seasonal or to eat more plants with the European Climate Pact? Or, if you’re passionate about sustainable food and farming, you could become an Ambassador or Friend of the Pact and lead your own slow-food movement.
Whatever steps you take, you can encourage people to do the same on social media, by email, or by word of mouth, and share your progress using the hashtag #EUClimatePact.
- Publication date
- 28 July 2022