We know we need to change how we eat if we want to avoid drowning in waste, contributing to carbon emissions, and preventing the poor turtles getting plastic straws stuck in their noses. But what if we enjoy a good steak? How can we protect the environment without giving up everything we love. Herald on Sunday food columnist Niki Bezzant reports.

The impression we typically get from media coverage about the state of our environment is dire. It can prompt two different reactions: spur us into action, or paralyse us so we carry on as always, because, we feel, nothing we do will make a difference anyway.

But change may be afoot. The speed with which single-use plastic bags have disappeared from our supermarkets is a sign of a sea change in the way we're thinking - and acting - when it comes to sustainability. And experts say 2019 could be a tipping point year.
Now that we've adjusted to life without plastic bags as a small step to living more lightly, food is next on the list.

University of Auckland Marketing and Sustainability lecturer, Joya Kemper, says there is definitely a push by consumers who are willing and able to afford it for more sustainable products overall.

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With food, though, many of us are still not connecting the dots.

"Research shows [people] don't understand the impact of food on the environment. They're able to realise that agriculture has an impact on the environment - that meat and dairy, say, have a greater impact than fruit and vegetables. But they really underestimate how much the difference actually is. The general knowledge isn't there."

We need to connect the dots, and quickly, the experts say.

In a report published in the journal Nature in November, researchers from Oxford University painted a chilling picture: the world food system is broken, they say, and if we keep producing food the same way we are now, by 2050 the environmental impacts of the food system could reach levels that 'exceed the proposed boundaries for planetary stability'. That's science-speak for 'we're in serious trouble'.

This echoes the report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 'The future of food and agriculture – Alternative pathways to 2050', which looks at how the planet can balance growing population, wealth and the corresponding demand for food, with diminishing resources and pressure on the natural world. Again, it's not a pretty picture; action is needed across the board, the FAO says, from governments to individuals, to avoid significant 'food insecurity' by 2050. That is UN-speak for 'we won't be able to feed ourselves'.

Tied into all of this is human health. The planet is in the crazy state where vast numbers of people are starving and vast numbers are overweight; and what the FAO calls the 'triple burden' of malnutrition - undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity - often exist within a single country or even community. The food we're demanding is not only killing the planet, they say; it's killing us too.

It all makes for sobering, if not downright depressing, reading. To top it off, last month the EAT Lancet Commission released a report proposing for the first time dietary targets combining both the health of humans and the health of the planet. If we want to keep people and planet alive and healthy past 2050, the Commission says, we need nothing short of an urgent global transformation of the food system.

So what can we do? Can individuals make a difference with mealtime choices, or are we doomed?

Spotlight on meat

The FAO report, the Nature report and the EAT Lancet report all call out animal consumption - meat and dairy - as problematic for the sustainability of the planet. Switching to a more plant-based diet is one of the main ways we can, they say, reduce pressure on land and water and lower emissions.

Does that mean we need to give up meat?

Dr Rosie Bosworth is an expert on future food systems who's also the co-founder and chief executive of a plant-based dairy alternatives start-up based in Auckland. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she has some strong opinions on this.

"For the most part, the term 'sustainable meat eater' is a total oxymoron," she says.

"Farming animals for food uses a huge amount of land for grazing and to grow feed for grain-fed animals; it's the leading cause of deforestation worldwide".

In New Zealand, however, the way we produce meat is not the same as other countries, a point our meat producers are keen to emphasise.

Beef and Lamb NZ says we're pretty good at producing meat sustainably here. Its chief insight officer, Jeremy Baker, says "people tend to talk about meat as if it's one thing; but it's not; it's produced in many different ways in many different countries and the production systems in NZ are relatively unique."

"NZ-produced red meat is amongst the most sustainable in the world," he says.

We have a sustainability advantage because we grow almost all of our meat from grass, not grain, on land that can't be used to produce other food products.
"Most of the land where sheep and beef is produced in NZ is on slopes and hill country that can't be planted in food products at all. You're converting cellulose - or grass - which humans can't eat - into a product that they can eat."

Our meat naturally has less impact than meat farmed intensively in other countries, which uses feed that has to be produced separately from food humans could be consuming.

On top of that, say Baker, "we are one of the few red meat production systems that can actually quite unequivocally say we are reducing our carbon footprint already. The sheep and beef sector in NZ has dropped its absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent since 1990."

That's not just because sheep and cow numbers have gone down. It's been achieved while maintaining production. Baker says it's not magic; just better farming and genetic advances meaning farmers are getting more meat from fewer animals, and fewer animals means lower emissions.

Baker says the red meat industry is also working hard to solve other issues. Clean waterways, soil health and biodiversity are all areas Beef & Lamb NZ is putting serious time and millions of research dollars into.

"We are doing a lot. The sheep and beef sector sees climate change and environmental issues as existential questions. The people who are going to be most affected by climate change are going to be farmers and people who have coastal property. Farmers already are feeling the impact. And so farmers are very, very focused on this as an issue; both mitigating and also planning for what the impacts might be."

Right now, Baker says we can be comfortable eat locally-grown meat, if we are inclined to do so, and still feel we are eating sustainably.

"We do need to ask the hard questions: is that product being produced as sustainably as possible? But as part of a balanced diet to give you the micronutrients and protein you need as an omnivore, we would suggest that good quality, environmentally sustainable, ethically-produced red meat is a good option. And we happen to think that NZ's product is one of the great ones."

We may, though, want to consider eating less meat than we're used to.

Beef & Lamb's nutritionist, Fiona Greig, points to research which shows that if we all ate according to official healthy eating guidelines - which include only moderate amounts of meat - we'd not only be healthier, but we'd be eating more sustainably, too.

Nutrition and sustainability are converging, she says, and while we know what an appropriate amount of red meat is for health - no more than 500g cooked, or 750g raw, each week - until now we haven't known what the limit is for a sustainable amount of meat. A few countries who have tried to apply sustainability criteria to their dietary guidelines - Germany, Sweden, Brazil and Quatar - have stuck to the 500g limit.

But the EAT-Lancet Commission, whose goal was to determine a global consensus on what makes a sustainable diet, has bad news for meat lovers, recommending a drastic cut in meat consumption. Just 14g a day of red meat, they say, is a healthy and sustainable amount, along with a similar amount of pork and up to 58g of chicken. In practice that probably means meat on an occasional basis only. Beef and Lamb says it's always advocated a plant-based diet, and says the report is a good opportunity to highlight New Zealand's grass-fed red meat.

Dairy dilemmas

So if steak can still be on the menu, what about cheese? Dairy is the backbone of our economy; we produce lots and we consume lots. Can we eat butter, milk and cheese and call ourselves sustainable eaters?

Bosworth says no.

"Unless you have a cow in your own backyard, industrial scale dairy is simply unsustainable. Even in a country like NZ where the cows are grass-fed, we need only look at the impacts dairy has had on the environment - our waterways, the water use, the conversion of forestry and other less environmentally taxing land to producing low value commodity products like milk."

When you waste less food, you save yourself money and time. Photo / Supplied
When you waste less food, you save yourself money and time. Photo / Supplied

The environmental impact of dairy in NZ has been the subject of increasing debate in recent years. Former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman has said he expects most milk sold globally in 20-25 years' time to be synthetic, and calls synthetic milk an "existential threat" to our dairy industry, such is the demand for and investment in it around the world.

But the dairy industry here says there will always be demand for our milk - and we're better than other countries at producing dairy sustainably.

"New Zealand farmers have among the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per litre of milk collected in the world. We can produce a litre of milk for about half the emissions of the world average," says Fonterra's director of sustainability, Carolyn Mortland.

The dairy industry is taking sustainability seriously, just like the meat industry, she says.

"We know that strong, healthy local environments and communities are the foundation for sustainable, profitable dairy farming and that's why sustainability is core to our strategy. Our farmers are passionate stewards of the land and are committed to taking care of it for future generations. So are we."

Mortland, too, points to official dietary guidelines as a way of sustainably including dairy in our lives. That means two serves a day. The EAT-Lancet Commission says dairy is an optional food, and along similar lines recommends up to 500g a day.

Waste busting

The other major food-related thing we can do to be more sustainable is to seriously look at the food we waste. EAT-Lancet says we need to at least halve global food waste.

Waste minimisation organisation Love Food Hate Waste says a third of food produced globally is wasted; that is 1.3 billion tonnes of food that's never eaten. In New Zealand, we throw away 122,547 tonnes of food a year; equivalent to 213 jumbo jets full of food, worth about $872 million each year.

And it's not just benignly sitting there once it's thrown away. When food ends up in landfill, it decomposes and releases the greenhouse gas methane. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest producer of carbon emissions behind China and the United States. The more we waste, the more we have to produce, putting more pressure on natural resources.

While we may think most food waste is happening at an industrial level, in fact most of the food waste in New Zealand and other developed countries is from consumers.

"Household food waste is probably double that of all the supermarkets and all the restaurants and cafes combined," says Jenny Marshall, Love Food Hate Waste spokeswoman.

Marshall says there's been a cultural shift in the last year on waste, partly driven by a parallel concern about inequality. She cites the Community Fruit and Vege stands and Pataka Kai food sharing initiatives as examples of this.

Reducing food waste also has the benefit of an immediate payoff, she says.

"Out of all the different actions you can do, the reason why food waste is such a good one to focus on is that when you waste less food, you save yourself money and time." It's a win-win behaviour; a win for us and a win for the environment.

The challenge with food waste is it's not a one-time thing.

"It's a bit like trying to lose weight," reckons Marshall. "You have to be good all the time. It's every day, it's every meal, it's every time you go shopping. It's every time you come home and decide to get takeaways rather than cooking with what's in the fridge."

How to eat more sustainably

• Choose local meat and dairy

New Zealand produces more sustainably than other countries.

• Plan your meals
Look at what's in your fridge; base your meal plans on that first and only buy what you need to avoid food waste.

• Shop with a list
You'll be less likely to impulsively buy food you're more likely to waste.

• Store food properly
Quality containers for your leftovers mean food is less likely to go bad.

• Eat your leftovers
Cooked food is one of our most-wasted food items; be creative and find new recipes so you can use it.

• Eat seasonally
It avoids foods that have come from overseas, cutting down on transport and storage.

• Grow your own
You'll eat more plants and lower your carbon footprint.

• Compost
You'll reduce council costs for waste collection and keep your leftovers out of landfills.

• Buy the ugly fruits
Many supermarkets have a range of fruit and vegetables that come in weird and funny shapes that can be overlooked by shoppers. It tastes the same.

• Ask questions
engage with the people selling and producing your food about where and how things were produced and how they're packaged. Consumer pressure can have a huge impact.