Several issues come more or less quickly to mind when defining the contours of "sustainable" food: local, organic, packaging, meat or seasonal...
But what is the relative importance of these? Is there any other key issue? What are the action levers that we can focus on as individuals to quickly reduce the impact of our food habits on the environment? And, before answering these questions, how can we measure and qualify this impact?
There is a plethora of information for those who are interested and it is easy to be drown by it. So here comes a small overview of this very important and exciting topic.
The environmental impact of food in Switzerland
The food is second only to housing, but far ahead of mobility, the sector with the greatest environmental impact*. in Switzerland.
71% of this impact is generated outside Switzerland, via imported products (1).
* Expressed in Ecological Load Units (2), unit of measurement that takes into account 26 different types of emissions and polluting factors such as CO2, pesticides, etc.
If we go into a little more detail, it turns out that some products have a greater impact than others...
We note that packaging certainly represents an environmental burden, but quite marginal compared to the other items in the value chain. This may seem strange in view of the awareness-raising work that has been done on the subject in recent years, but from an environmental point of view, the content is clearly more important than the container.
To go even further in detail, a very complete site: ourworldindata.org.
In addition, we should not forget to take into account food waste, which represents about 25% of the environmental impact of food in Switzerland, 38% of which is generated at the household level (3).
Let's be clear, our food will always have an environmental impact. However, by our choices of purchases and food consumption, we can significantly reduce the pressure our habits on the environment.
The action levers are relatively simple to implement and are articulated around :
- the choice of diet and the products that constitute it;
- the place and methods of agricultural production;
- the quantities purchased and consumed;
- the diversification of ones diet.
4 tips to reduce the impact of our food
#1 Reduce our consumption of meat and dairy products
Reminder: in 2021, the average consumption of meat and dairy products in Switzerland amounted to 48kg and 301kg per capita respectively, or 130g and 826g per day (4).
Problem: c.40% of the environmental burden of our food is related to the production and consumption of meat and dairy products.
The causes? Mainly:
- massive importation of fodder (soybean meal from Brazil in particular, a rapidly expanding crop and a major cause of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions);
- methane emitted by our ruminant friends, fertilizers, manure and agricultural machinery.
of arable land in the world
is used to produce fodder for animals,
when it could be used directly for human consumption
65% and 20%
of the respectively of the meat and milk produced in Switzerlanddepend on imported fodder (5)
|2 to 3x
the difference in impact between beef farming (higher) and pork or chicken farming (6)
« Yes, but by reducing meat and dairy products, we will lack proteins, right? »
Yes and no. 😊
Yes, if the deficit is not compensated by a vegetable protein source.
No, because our need for protein is often exaggerated: the Swiss Society of Nutrition recommends a daily intake of 0.8g per kilo of body mass, i.e. "only" 60g for a man of 75kg or 50g for a woman of 60kg (7). The good news is that this target is relatively easy to reach with a balanced and diversified diet.
« Shall we talk about fish? »
Sure but unfortunately, the situation is not very encouraging:
- the consumption of fish and shellfish in Switzerland amounts to about 9 kilos per year and per capita. Over the last 25 years, this consumption has increased by about 60% (4);
- top 3 most sold seafood products? Salmon (12%), fish sticks (9%) and shrimps (9%) (7);
- 97% of fish and shellfish consumed in Switzerland are imported.
Problem: 90% of the world's fish stocks are almost exhausted(8).
This issue could be the subject of a dedicated article... Should you want to learn more about it, don't hesitate to go to WWF- Fish guide !
"Ok, so what should we do?"
In concrete terms, to follow a balanced and sustainable diet, the Swiss Society of Nutrition recommends eating a portion of 100 to 120g of meat (including fish) two to three times a week.
And the rest of the time?
100-200g (depending on needs) of vegetable proteins such as those found in tempeh, seitan, tofu or legumes (which have many other benefits) (9).
|300g of vegetables are consumed per year and per person in Switzerland
- The world average is 7kg (10)
The production of vegetables fixes atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, thus reducing synthetic and biological inputs, which are major consumers of fossil energy and emitters of greenhouse gases.
With regard to fish, the ideal would be to be reasonable in its consumption and to favour those labelled MSC / ASC / organic (8).
"What about dairy products and the calcium they provide?"
Let's quote the Swiss Society of Nutrition (again!): "each day [we recommend consuming] 3 servings of milk or milk products - 1 portion corresponds to 2dl of milk or 150-200g of yogurt / quark / cottage cheese / other dairy products or 30g of hard or semi-hard cheese or 60g of soft cheese.”
=> meaning a reduction of 25-30% compared to the current average per capita consumption.
For those who prefer vegetable drinks, do not hesitate to mix soy milk (rich in protein and calcium), almond milk (rich in fiber, amino acids and vitamins A, B, E), oat milk (anti-oxidant, rich in iron and full of vitamins) and others - Be careful to choose drinks without added sugar and if necessary enriched with calcium and vitamin D (which helps to "fix" the calcium)
#2 Choose seasonal and if possible local products
- limiting the impact of food growing in greenhouses heated with fossil fuels;
- limiting the importation of food transported by air.
more energy consumption for a Swiss bean heated in a greenhouse
than for a bean grown in the open ground (12)
more energy consumption to transport food by air than by truck (12)
In spite of the received ideas and even would you have to choose, it is more important to eat vegetarian food and/or seasonal food than to focus solely on buying local products.
Of course, buying seasonal and local (i.e. Swiss) food is still the best combination from an environmental point of view though.
In concrete terms, what should we do once you are in front of the fruit and vegetable shelf?
Just put in your basket only seasonal food (guide available on www.wwf.ch) and avoid eating products imported from the other side of the world, with a short shelf life and/or picked at maturity (bye bye avocado!).
Labels (although too numerous and often not explicit enough about their qualities and limits) can also help you in your choices - In this regard, a useful link : FRC - Label Guide.
Agreed, at the beginning it is a bit tedious, but as time goes by the selection becomes easier!
#3 Reduce food waste
No secret here, we can mechanically reduce the environmental impact of food waste by :
- buying the right quantities;
- not excluding de facto "ugly" products from our shopping basket;
- cooking the right portions;
- reusing leftovers.
|30 to 50%
of biodegradable waste thrown away in Swiss households
is still suitable for consumption (13)
of household packaging is food,
the majority of which is related to beverages (13)
#4 diversify your diet
In addition to using the above-mentioned action levers, it is important to diversify your diet as much as possible. In other words, don't always eat the same thing, the same types of vegetables, the same types of cereals, etc. This is not only important from a dietary point of view, but also essential from a biodiversity point of view.
of the world population's diet
is based on only 12 plant species (out of more than 30'000 edible ones) and 5 animal species (14)
The process of calibration of food products undertaken for decades by distributors in order to meet consumer expectations and the race to optimize agricultural yields have led to a considerable reduction in the genetic diversity of species cultivated in Switzerland and around the world. Today, it is essential to get out of this situation and to work towards the preservation, or even the restoration, of biodiversity, which is a condition to our survival, it is as simple as that.
This subject is vast and we can only touch on it in this article. In this respect, we cannot recommend enough the reading of the IPCC reports dedicated to it.
Our food system will always, necessarily, have an impact on the environment.
This being said, let's be lucid: our lifestyles and the resulting depletion of natural resources are both the cause and the consequence of the climate change we are already facing. If we do not change our habits (quickly), it is very likely that we are heading, together, towards a future that is much less livable than our present.
So yes, the necessary adjustments are all the more unpleasant than they are imposed on us. The good news is that we can, through our actions and without insurmountable efforts, have a real impact on the situation and accompany the transition to a more sustainable diet.
- Reduce the consumption of meat (especially beef) and dairy products.
- Buy seasonal, local and if possible organic / labelled products.
- Make a big effort on food waste by buying the right portions, giving "ugly" products a chance and eating 100% (or almost) of stored food products.
- Diversify your diet as much as possible.
And if you don't have enough time to get started, or if the step seems too high, you know where to buy good, healthy, eco-friendly and easy-to-prepare meals! 😉
The bien Bon Team
N.B.: feel free to send us your comments on this article by sending us a message to bienbonjour@bienBon.ch !
(1) Federal Office for the Environment - Environmental Report 2022
(2) Federal Office for the Environment - Ecological Load Units
(3) Federal Office for the Environment - Food waste
(4) Federal Statistical Office - Food
(5) FOEN - Environment magazine 2016
(6) Swiss Society of Nutrition - The ecological balance of food
(7) Federal Office for the Environment - Meat market observation (March 2019)
(8) WWF - FAQ Fish and Seafood Guide
(9) Swiss Society of Nutrition - Swiss food pyramid
(10) FAO - 2016 international year of pulses
(12) Federal Office for the Environment - Environmental impact of Swiss consumption and production (2011)
(14) My Choices Environment - Impact of food on biodiversity
(15) Federal Office for the Environment - State of biodiversity in Switzerland