Feb 09, 2024

Eating for the Earth: A sustainable approach to food choices

Abhinav Shukla, PGDM 2023-25  

In our collective effort to safeguard the well-being of our planet, we often focus on energy conservation and waste reduction. However, one aspect that deserves closer scrutiny is the impact of our daily dietary choices. Surprisingly, the quantity and type of food we consume play a pivotal role in shaping the health of our environment. This blog post aims to explore how our food preferences can either positively or adversely affect the delicate balance of our planet.

The global food demand dilemma

The surging global population drives increased demand and consumption of food, consequently necessitating additional land for farming. This often leads to the clearing of critical ecosystems like rainforests, disrupting animal habitats and contributing to the ominous spectre of global warming. Furthermore, heightened food consumption puts an additional strain on water resources, particularly in irrigation and livestock farming, exacerbating water scarcity in various regions. Astonishingly, the act of making and eating food releases gases into the air, directly impacting greenhouse gas emissions. Food production alone is responsible for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).1

The alarming issue of food waste

A critical factor demanding our attention is the pervasive issue of food waste. This action not only results in the squandering of valuable resources but also contributes significantly to environmental degradation. Consider these startling facts: approximately one-third (about 1.3 billion tons) of the total food produced is wasted annually, amounting to a staggering one trillion US dollars’ worth. This wastefulness extends to an area larger than 6.3% of the world’s landmass and a quarter of the world’s freshwater supply used to grow food that is never eaten. To put it into perspective, this includes 30% of cereal crops, 40-50% of produce crops, 20% of oil seeds, 20% of meat and dairy, and 35% of fish.2

Per capita food waste in North America and Europe is between 95-115 kilograms (kg) per year, more than ten times the waste in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia, and South-Eastern Asia (6-11 kg)2. The environmental toll is significant, with food waste producing 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.2,3

While all food is prone to spoilage, animal products like meat and dairy have a shorter shelf life and are more inclined to waste due to their higher moisture content and susceptibility to bacterial growth, and more impacts of animal husbandry are further explored in the blog.

Impact of animal husbandry

Animal breeding for human consumption has been a topic of concern due to its damaging effects on various fronts. It not only impacts the well-being of animals but also places a significant burden on our limited resources, such as animal feed and water.

When we look at the information available, it shows us that raising animals for food takes a lot of resources. The food we give to animals, like corn and soybeans, needs a huge amount of land, water, and energy to grow. This puts pressure on our land and can lead to problems like cutting down forests and destroying animal homes. Around 80% of the land we use for farming is for growing food for animals.4,5

Animals also need a lot of water, not just for drinking but also to grow the food they eat. Raising animals uses much more water compared to growing plants for food. Producing just one pound of beef takes about 2400 gallons of water!4

Furthermore, the livestock sector contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through methane released by ruminant animals like cattle. The entire lifecycle, including the production and transportation of animal feed, further contributes to carbon emissions.

Solution: Mitigating food waste for a sustainable future

The production of excessive quantities of food places an overwhelming demand on land, water, and energy resources. Large-scale agricultural methods, including land clearing, extensive irrigation, and the use of fertilisers and pesticides, have detrimental effects on the environment. A key solution lies in reducing the quantity of food we waste, actively lowering the need for disproportionate resource usage. This, in turn, encourages advocacy for more sustainable production practices.6

Agriculture stands as a significant contributor to global freshwater consumption, with 70% of global freshwater withdrawals utilised for agricultural purposes. When we discard food, we essentially discard the water invested in its production. This is especially critical given the significant stress already placed on water resources in regions experiencing water scarcity. By mitigating food waste, we can play a role in conserving water resources and alleviating the burden on areas grappling with water shortages. Alarmingly, 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication is caused by agriculture.7

A call to action for a sustainable future: Collective effect

In the journey towards a more sustainable and eco-conscious future, the power of individual actions cannot be overstated. As we reflect on the intricate relationship between our dietary choices and the health of our planet, it becomes clear that each meal we consume holds the potential to either harm or heal the Earth.

Let this awareness be the catalyst for a resounding call to action. It’s time for us to not just recognise but actively embrace the responsibility embedded in our food choices. The path forward lies in the conscious regulation of what we eat and how we eat it.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocates for a transition to plant-based diets, emphasising locally sourced and seasonal produce. This is not merely a recommendation; it’s a formidable measure that, when adopted collectively, can significantly reduce our environmental footprint. Prioritising fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes while curbing the consumption of meat, dairy, and processed foods can reshape the narrative of our impact on the planet.8

Supporting organic farming is another potent strategy. By endorsing practices that promote biodiversity, protect ecosystems, and conserve natural resources, we actively contribute to a healthier Earth. The cultivation of organic crops not only provides sustenance but becomes a sanctuary for beneficial insects and wildlife, fostering pest control and ecosystem health. This is a call to support a farming approach that actively works towards environmental protection.

Yet, perhaps the most tangible action lies in our daily habits. From meal planning to proper storage and creative use of leftovers, individual efforts can significantly minimise the pervasive issue of food waste. Each small step counts, and collectively, these efforts create a ripple effect toward a more sustainable food system.

Let’s not underestimate the impact of our collective choices. By adopting a plant-based diet, consuming seasonal foods, supporting organic farming, and actively reducing food waste, we pave the way for a healthier planet—one that thrives on conservation, biodiversity protection, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.9, 10

So, as we conclude this exploration into sustainable food choices, let’s not just recognise the power of our decisions but also act upon them. Together, let’s strive towards a future where our meals nourish not only our bodies but also the Earth we call home. The time for change is now, and the change begins with each one of us.

Let’s recognise the power of our food choices and strive towards a future where our meals nourish not only our bodies but also the Earth.


1 Ritchie, H. (2023, December 28). Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions

2 Environmental Impacts of Food Production | Maple Ridge, BC. (n.d.). https://www.mapleridge.ca/1776/Food-Production

3 Fransen, B. (2023, January 22). The Environmental Impacts of Food and Diet. EcoMatcher. https://www.ecomatcher.com/the-environmental-impacts-of-food-and-diet/

4 Meat and the Environment | PETA. (2023, April 28). PETA. https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/meat-environment/

5 Water Footprint Network – Water Footprint Network. (n.d.). https://www.waterfootprint.org/

6 Nesheim, M. C. (2015, June 17). Environmental Effects of the U.S. Food System. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK305182/

7 Water in Agriculture. (n.d.). World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/water-in-agriculture

8 Ritchie, H. (2022, December 2). Environmental Impacts of Food Production. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food

9 Frcp, M. J. M. (2023, June 12). Environmental impacts associated with food production. Observatoire De La Prévention De L’Institut De Cardiologie De Montréal. https://observatoireprevention.org/en/2021/09/07/environmental-impacts-associated-with-food-production/

10 How food choices can help the planet. (2022, May 9). The University of Sydney. https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2022/05/09/how-food-choices-can-help-the-planet.html

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