IN FOCUS: Will changing what we eat help save the planet?
With the spotlight being shone on how food production and consumption can have a detrimental impact on the environment, CNA looks at how what we eat - or don't eat - can make a difference.
SINGAPORE: Since getting married and moving into her new home with her husband, Ms Noor Hanisah Noordin has been making efforts to reduce how much meat she eats.
She is in charge of the cooking and prepares vegetarian meals most days of the week. This is a departure from when she lived with her family when almost every meal would have some meat.
The reason for this change is not due to changing taste preferences or a desire for a healthier diet.
It’s because of environmental concerns.
“It’s important to me to treat our environment in the best way. This is especially so because of the climate crisis that indicates we have been harming it massively,” said the 28-year-old who is part of the Singapore Youth for Climate Action.
While much of the attention about the environmental damage being done to the planet has focused on areas such as the use of fossil fuels and plastics, food production and consumption is an issue that is increasingly in the spotlight.
Of all the staples on many people’s dinner table, experts say that red meat is the worst culprit causing environmental harm.
“On the relative scale, producing certain amounts of red meats has 10 to 100 times greater impact on the environment than producing the same amount of plant-based foods,” said Professor William Chen, director of the Food Science and Technology Programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Ms Hanisah’s journey to eating less meat started when she browsed a book at a prata stall in Jalan Kayu, which highlighted how food production and consumption has a major impact on the environment.
“It made a lot of sense because food is such a big part of your life,” she said.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FOOD AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Greenhouse gas emissions from food production make up more than a third of the global total, studies have shown.
Such emissions are an indicator used to measure the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere due to human activities. These gases cause the greenhouse effect that lead to global heating. Such warming leads to other issues like melting glaciers, rising sea levels and intensification of extreme weather events.
Prof Chen, who is also Michael Fam chair professor at NTU, cited some figures to show how food production dominates the environment. For instance, 40 per cent of water is used for agriculture and a third of all crop land is used to produce animal feed.
“The food we eat therefore is closely related to the environment,” he said.
But not all food production has the same impact.
Associate Professor L. Roman Carrasco, assistant head of the Department Biological Sciences, at National University of Singapore (NUS) said that when it comes to environmental harm, “the worst by far are beef and lamb”.
“Their contributions to climate change and biodiversity loss are staggering. More than half of the emissions from food come from animal products and, among all of them, half of the emissions are just from beef and lamb,” he said.
While livestock farming has the worst carbon footprint, sugarcane and coffee are among the most harmful crops on the environment because their production can involve destroying biodiversity and causing soil erosion, Prof Chen said.
“Other surprises include … rice paddy fields which emit more greenhouse gases than other cereals, as well as soybean farming,” he said.
THE SINGAPORE PERSPECTIVE
The situation for Singapore is somewhat different because the country is so reliant on food imports, which means that the environmental cost of bringing supplies in to the country has a comparatively greater impact.
A Singapore-centric study commissioned by investment firm Temasek and carried out by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and Deloitte, looked at the environmental impact of food items in terms of greenhouse gas emission, energy consumption and water consumption. The study looked at the life cycle of food, from the time it is produced, processed and transported then consumed.
The study, published in 2019, was commissioned to provide insights into the situation here as many existing studies are centred on the United States or Europe and do not consider the environmental effects of importing food.
It found that in the context of Singapore, which imports more than 90 per cent of its food, transportation plays an important role in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions compared with many other countries where food can be produced locally.
The level of consumption also made a difference. In this context, pork has a bigger impact than beef.
Pork accounts for the most greenhouse gas emissions per annum per capita despite the fact that greenhouse gas emissions from one kilogram of pork is half that of one kilogram of beef, the study found.
"This is because per capita consumption of pork is much greater than that of beef," the study said.
According to the study, the annual greenhouse gas emissions per capita basis, with carbon dioxide equivalent as a unit of measurement for chicken is 121kg and 97kg for fish - both higher than that for beef, which stood at 69kg.
Beef has the highest greenhouse gas emissions on a per kg basis, but has relatively low greenhouse gas emissions on a per capita basis due to low consumption, the study found.
On a per capita basis, pork came out tops, at 266kg, while leafy vegetables like spinach, lettuce and Chinese cabbage ranked the lowest, at 6kg.
In order to reduce the environmental impact of key staples, their country of origin and proximity to Singapore becomes a factor, along with how they are transported.
The greenhouse gas emissions during the transportation stage for food imported from Brazil are about 45 times more when flying in the chilled meat than shipping it frozen through sea freight, the study found, adding that a similar comparison can be seen for chilled and frozen pork from Australia.
"Hence, sourcing chilled food items from neighbouring countries or producing locally can serve to meaningfully reduce the environmental footprint as this means avoiding the need to import food through air transport," the study said.
The study also said that at the time, 29 per cent of the average Singaporean’s diet consists of meats, eggs and seafood. The study noted that meat products such as pork have significantly higher greenhouse gas than fruits and vegetables.
This means that there are other options to reduce the environmental impact of food production and consumption.
Noting the availability of plant-based alternatives to meat in Singapore, the study said: "Consuming less traditional meat and more of these plant-based meats could lead to a significant decrease in the greenhouse gas emissions of our food supply due to the lower environmental footprint of plant sources."
HOW MUCH CHANGING FOOD HABITS CAN HELP
Such studies come against a backdrop of growing public awareness globally of how food production is tied to environmental damage and discussion about how individuals can make a difference.
Ms Hanisah has reduced the amount of seafood and chicken that she eats.
“When it comes to seafood, you're not sure if they're beings over-fished, if they're being farmed. I don't want to be overtaking from the environment and not giving back,” she said.
“I think also because that all (seafood and chicken) add up carbon footprint-wise. Definitely, the resources you need to produce that is more than vegetables,” she said.
Changing food consumptionhabits would help the environment “tremendously”, Assoc Prof Carrasco said.
“For instance, if we were all vegan, food production emissions would drop by 70 per cent,” he said.
Referring to the study done by his agency with Deloitte, Dr Jonathan Low from A*Star said that having a more balanced diet and substituting 50 per cent of animal-based red meats with plant-based alternatives could reduce food greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 per cent.
Beyond individuals’ consumption, farming needs to transform, gradually moving away from industrialised agriculture to sustainable agriculture, Prof Chen said. The key is sustainability of food production, he said, adding that changes towards an efficient agricultural system are needed.
“Promoting sustainable livestock farming, which involves sustainable feeds, higher production yield, and better manure utilisation, is a critical step forward,” he said.
Alternative food sources may become increasingly important, considering the impact of climate change on traditional farming, he added.
WHAT SOME RESTAURANTS ARE DOING
While individuals can do their part, restaurants are also taking steps to help protect the environment. Mexican-Turkish restaurant chain Stuff’d temporarily replaced its beef with a plant-based alternative in a recent collaboration with Impossible Foods, which makes such products.
The price will remain the same, said the chain’s regional business development manager Jason Tan. Stuff’d started offering Impossible beef on its menu in 2019, but price was a concern to some customers, Mr Tan said.
“Conventional beef was still the more affordable option when viewed alongside Impossible beef, creating a psychological price barrier for some who want to eat more sustainably,” he said.
Mr Tan added that the firm saw a rising consumption trend for plant-based diets and healthy food in Singapore, especially among the younger generation.
General Manager of Impossible Foods Singapore Laurent Stevenart said that the firm’s beef alternative uses 87 per cent less water, needs 96 per cent less land, contributes 89 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions, and contributes 92 per cent less freshwater pollution than conventional beef.
“We hope that this three-month collaboration campaign with Impossible Foods drives further awareness and acceptance of plant-based protein and encourages and convinces a wider audience to play their part in eating more sustainably,” Mr Tan said.
At another restaurant, Open Farm Community, many products are grown by the restaurant itself, or sourced locally, said its head chef Olvier Truesdale-Jutras.
If products are sourced overseas, the team looks out for ethical environmental practices, he said.
“Anything we can grow ourselves cuts out the whole chain of middlemen, packaging, shipping, and so on. Sourcing locally drops the emissions massively and supports the local financial ecosystem,” he said.
If it's protein, the restaurant ensures that it is carbon-neutral from the source, Mr Truesdale-Jutras said.
“We work with three Australian farms committed to their own carbon neutrality for our non-vegetable options, and support local fish and chicken farmers as much as possible,” he said.
Carbon-neutral means that any carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from a company’s activities is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed.
While most food and beverage operations keep food in excess to cater to the unpredictable demand for dishes from customers, his restaurant does not do this, he said.
“We would rather change the dish if we run out and use up something else from our own farm or garden than over order and sit on expensive and environmentally irresponsible amounts of product”, he said.
Open Farm Community also minimises waste by using “absolutely everything” and composting the rest, Mr Truesdale-Jutras said.
“We spend a fair amount of time and creative effort ensuring we avoid extraneous food waste. Things that usually get binned get re-purposed into tasty edibles or infusions,” he said.
HOW CAN PEOPLE MAKE A CHANGE?
People can help save the environment by taking other steps, experts said.
The environmental impact of a certain food item or ingredient could vary when produced using different methods and in different countries, said Dr Low, who is the acting research division director of the Sustainability and Life Cycle Engineering Division at A*Star’s Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology.
“We can choose to buy the one produced in the most sustainable manner,” he said. Food producers and supermarkets could provide information, through environmental labels for instance, to help consumers make informed choices, Dr Low added. They could also implement sustainable procurement initiatives, he said.
“Do not waste food. Food wastage means the environmental impact caused by food production was for nothing,” he said, adding that the treatment and decomposition of food waste is estimated to contribute to an additional one-eighth of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Similarly, Prof Chen said the one of the easiest changes people can introduce to their eating habits is to reduce food waste.
“One way to help save the planet is to encourage responsible consumption through consumer education,” he said. Another way is help develop alternative food sources, he said. Urban farming provides a viable option for food source in cities, he said.
“Getting more Singaporeans involved in the community-scale urban farming also helps raising awareness of preciousness of foods and thus naturally inculcate responsible consumption behaviour,” he said.
Decisions including what kind of foods and how much people eat play a major role for both health and environment sustainability. For this reason, gradually moving toward more intake of healthier foods should certainly improve environmental sustainability, he said.
Assoc Prof Carrasco referred to reducing food waste as the “lowest hanging fruit” for people to make an impact.
“We need not be so drastic to have an impact. The best changes are those that do not represent a major effort and can be sustained over time,” he said.
Getting the portions right and managing the fridge well, not only would save people money, but could cut global carbon emissions by 8 per cent, he added.
“We can have a profound impact with a few decisions that need not be drastic (reducing food waste and eating less beef and lamb). The good news is that those decisions align our health, our pockets and the planet’s health. Everybody wins, “he said.