If we are what we eat, I’m essentially an avocado. I’m a flexitarian (can’t turn down mum’s comforting wonton noodles on special occasions) and I’ve revelled in avocados and cartons of almond milk for all my university years. Yet, I’ve been cutting down on guacamole and plant-milk matcha latte over the past few months, because of a remark from a friend.
“Do you think,” the fellow flexitarian said, “our diet is truly green, when avocados travelled from halfway around the world and the production of almond milk requires copious amounts of water?” It then hits home: eating for the environment may not be as straightforward as I thought. It’s not just swapping out meat with plant-based food.
Now, many of us are aware that food matters. We look at food beyond nutrients, pleasure and memories. We understand the intricate connection between food and climate change, and the truth is not news to us: a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions is pegged to our food system.
The greenhouse gases take a huge toll on the environment and drive global warming. We’ve witnessed droughts, warming oceans, rising sea levels… you know the gist. It behooves us to eat more sustainably for the environment, which explains the rise of veganism and the plant-based diet.
However, eating for the environment in a warming world—with due respect to those who’re making a conscious effort and their well-meaning intentions—isn’t a simple binary decision between eating meat or not. To make a dent in climate change, we have to be conscious of what we replace meat with. There’s also a need to look past this binary, good-vs-evil (for the environment) view of food. While plant-based food is comparatively better for the environment because it generates lesser greenhouse gas emissions than meat, not all plant-based food is as climate-friendly.
Let’s look at a few examples and find out why:
It’s no surprise why avocados are touted as a staple in the plant-based diet. This buttery green fruit is a great alternative source of potassium, vitamins, fatty acids and fibre. Now, avocados may be great for your health, but these benefits come at a hefty price.
Who would have guessed that this tiny fruit, neatly could be tied to a string of environmental and social issues? Sadly, it’s the reality in Michoacán, Mexico, where half of global avocados are produced and the industry is causing environmental damage on multiple fronts.
Dubbed “green gold” by the locals, the avocado industry is a multibillion-dollar industry and its huge demand is the driving force for rampant (illegal) deforestation. It’s estimated that the land production size of avocados is equivalent to 196,000 football fields and 25% of the farms are located within the Key Biological Areas (KBAs), which are areas designated for preserving threatened species.
The lucrative avocado industry has also caught the attention of drug cartels in Michoacán. They seized farms and cleared protected areas to make way for groves of avocado crops.
As a result of intensive avocado production, forests with diverse wildlife are destroyed and this threatens important species like the Monarch butterfly, which migrates annually to the sanctuary for winter. Apart from biodiversity loss, avocado farming has also led to extensive soil degradation and increased seismic activities.
Avocados are essentially water guzzlers. According to the Water Footprint Network, 2,000 litres of water is required to produce just one kilogram worth of avocados. In Mihoacán, approximately 9.5 billion litres of water—which can fill 3,800 Olympic swimming pools—are used daily on avocado farms.
The locals have turned to extract water from aquifers—an underground layer of rock or sediment saturated with groundwater—to keep the avocado industry running. It could hollow out subsoil caverns, which triggers man-made disasters like earthquakes, as evinced by an increase in seismic activities concentrated in the avocado plantation.
Even if your avocados aren’t from Mexico, avocado production can impose a heavy environmental toll no matter where they come from. The carbon dioxide emissions accumulated from growing, harvesting and transporting just two avocados was 846.36g in 2017.
Again, this doesn’t come as a surprise, considering a large amount of water required in production and the amount of wood involved in packing and shipping. Plus, to ensure that the avocados arrive in their pristine condition, most of the avocados are air-flown—whilst kept at a cool temperature—to delay the ripening process.
2. Almond Milk
I’ve always been a fan of plant-based milk because 1) I’m lactose intolerant and 2) it’s great for the environment. Or so I thought. Dairy alternatives do have their drawbacks. It was a bitter pill to swallow when I learned that my obsession with almond milk is pegged to environmental issues in California, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown.
Did you know that this tiny seed is a water hog? It takes about 74 litres of water to produce a single glass of almond milk and California is in the grip of severe drought. To meet rocketing demands, farmers rely heavily on pumping water from aquifers to stave off the water crisis.
However, a long-term disaster awaits: the ground is sinking as the aquifers deplete at a staggering rate. Parts of San Joaquin Valley, where most almond farms are located, “are estimated to have sunk more than four feet in total since 2015”.
Not only that, the use of pesticides in commercial almond farming contaminates water sources when they get dragged in runoff waters. This “contribute(s) to the toxification of drinking water” and puts additional stress on California’s limited water systems.
The multibillion-dollar industry is also killing their little helpers: the honey bees that pollinate almond groves each season. As reported by The Guardian, over 50 million bees have died two winters ago, and that makes up a third of bees from all commercial US colonies. The culprits? Pesticide exposure, diseases, habitat loss and almond pollination.
While the almond business is thriving, the commercial beekeepers are getting the raw end of the deal. Most of their revenue comes from renting out bees to almond farmers, and their livelihoods are greatly affected now that their bees are dying.
3. Meat Alternatives
Take a walk into the supermarket. You will notice a gallimaufry of alternative meat products in the frozen food aisle. Meatless burger patties, fishless fingers, vegan fillets and vegan luncheon meat and sausages are a common sight.
As companies muscle their way into the aisle with their own meat alternatives, I can’t help but to wonder if these meatless options are really a boon for the environment.
Quorn, the fungi-meat pioneer, is known for their meat-free products produced from mycoproteins (fermentation-derived proteins made from the fungus Fusarium venenatum). According to Quorn’s recent Footprint Comparison Report, the carbon footprint of Quorn’s mycoprotein is 40 times lower than beef and 6 times lower than chicken; only 0.79 kg of carbon dioxide is generated for every kilogram of mycoproteins.
However, these meatless options may release significantly higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than legumes and vegetables. Quorn’s vegan ham releases approximately 2.2 kg for every kilogram of ham. That’s more than two times the carbon footprint of avocados!
There is one further blot on this rosy picture of meat alternatives, and that is the use of glucose in the fermentation process, which could contribute to the burden on available arable land use.
So what’s the point of us sharing all these above? Don’t get us wrong! We aren’t discouraging you from going plant-based.
Instead, the message we are trying to convey is pretty simple. There’s always going to be an environmental impact for whichever action you take. Ultimately, as long as you do your research and layout all the facts, you shouldn’t feel guilty about the choices you make.
After all, food is closely tied to our mental and physical well-being. We should choose to eat based on what we think works best for us and the earth. It also helps keep our diets sustainable in the long run.
How you can help
If you’re trying to eat for the environment, here are some tips that may help:
1. Buy local and seasonal food
Many ingredients touted as staples in the plant-based diet have travelled halfway around the world to reach us. Transporting food requires a lot of fuel. This can add up to the total carbon footprint of plant-based food, which has a lower production footprint than meat and dairy. Instead, opt for local produce that is in season. Of course, considering the fact that Singapore imports 90% of our food, not all food we buy can be local. In that case, try to shop for food from countries closer to home.
2. Sweat the small (yet important) stuff
Aside from gas emissions, there are many other factors to consider from land use, water use, biodiversity loss, pesticide use, for example. As you have read above, they can have a detrimental impact on the environment.
You can start by paying attention to how foods are grown and transported. If you’re buying imported food, check if it’s transported by air or sea. If you’re not sure, here’s a general guide: highly perishable food like asparagus, green beans, berries and avocados tend to be air-freighted.
Know your food labels and read them before you place the bag of ‘natural’ or ‘pesticide-free’ food in your shopping cart. If you can, buy organic.
3. Less waste, more tinkering in the kitchen
When you waste food, you’re also wasting the emissions released from producing and processing, packing, shipping, storing and cooking. Sadly, these wasted emissions usually go unnoticed.
In Singapore, approximately $342 million worth of food is wasted in a year. Now, that’s worrying because it adds to our landfill, which is estimated to be filled up by 2035. Not only that, food waste buried in the landfill decomposes and releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Make it a habit not to waste food (it’s not too late to start now). Here’s my personal guide:
1. Plan before you shop, so you don’t get more than you need. Alternatively, you can buy from bulk food stores if you can. Also, try to get ingredients that are versatile! No more eating the same food for the whole week.
2. Freeze food that are about to go bad soon. Then stick a reminder outside the fridge so you won’t forget about it. A kitchen inventory can also be helpful.
3. Reimagine your leftovers! Get creative and expand your repertoire in the kitchen. Stale bread? Make French toast or bread crumbs out of it. Leftover vegetables? Make soup stock, or throw them in an omelette. Need some witty ideas? Ask grandma or google!
Read more: Addressing the elephant in the room: how you can deal with food waste in Singapore
The bottom line: Eating plant-based can help mitigate climate change. But it’s important to choose your alternatives wisely to help move the needle on climate change.
We need to look beyond gas emissions and think about how our food choices can affect the environment through unsustainable practices during production such as using pesticides, pumping water from the aquifers, destroying forests with diverse wildlife for farming and the like. It’s easy to get bogged down in all these details.
But remember, sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Start slowly, but surely.