March 14, 2018

Going Further with Food

Jessi Silverman

Jessi Silverman

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Happy Registered Dietitian Day! As a nutrition and dietetics student, I am thrilled that this year’s National Nutrition Month®, an initiative of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has a sustainability message: “Go Further with Food.” The idea is to maximize the health benefits of your food choices while minimizing wasted food.

As you likely have heard, wasted food is an enormous problem—the US Department of Agriculture estimated that a stunning 31 percent of food is sent to landfills by retail outlets and consumers. That conservative estimate does not include edible food that is wasted before it reaches the grocery store. Wasting food that has already been harvested wastes all of the scarce resource inputs—land, water, fuel—at every step of that food’s supply chain. Food losses also represent missed opportunities to divert the associated resources and products to prevent food insecurity and malnutrition. The latter two are global problems that are only continuing to increase in prevalence despite a sufficient amount of food being produced. CLF research has shown that foods high in beneficial, under-consumed nutrients like fiber are lost at particularly high rates in the US. If that weren’t bad enough, food sitting in landfills emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Eating less meat is another way to get the most out of your food, both for you and the planet. On the nutrition side of things, most people are eating too much meat at the expense of nutrient-dense whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Gradual changes such as swapping out a hamburger for a black bean burger once a week would get the average person closer to a health-promoting dietary pattern. Environment-wise, livestock are not very efficient at converting feed into edible calories. In fact, by feeding them liberally with crops like corn and soy—by far the most common method in industrial food animal production—it takes an average 13 to 14 calories of fuel energy to produce one edible calorie of meat or fish. Some types of meat, such as beef, are even more inefficient. Contrast that to the 2.5 to 3 fuel calories it takes to produce an edible calorie of beans or grains, and you start to get a sense of the amount of resources that could be saved if we ate less meat. So much of the global crop supply is fed to livestock that the land used to grow those crops could potentially feed billions of additional people. It takes 40 times more water to produce a pound of beef compared to producing a pound of vegetables. And, much like wasted food sitting in a landfill, ruminant livestock like cattle are responsible for a sizable proportion of methane emissions.

Animal products represent 13 percent of global food waste by volume. But because production of animal-based foods is so emissions-intensive, these foods, when wasted, account for approximately one third of greenhouse gas emissions linked to wasted food. In this way, choosing to eat plant-based more often, while taking steps to reduce the amount of food you throw away, is doubly beneficial for reducing the greenhouse gas impact of your diet.

So in the true spirit of National Nutrition Month, eating less meat can help you pack in more nutrient-dense foods you might be missing out on while reducing your impact on natural resources and the environment. And don’t forget about preventing wasted food to serve those goals as well. Resources from Meatless Monday and the Center for Food Loss and Waste Solutions can help your household or organization commit to Go Further with Food!

Image: Mike Milli.

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