Let’s talk about the link between the COVID-19 pandemic, food, and climate change, because hardly anyone seems to. COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus. A coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can transmit from non-human animals to humans as a result of mutations. Mutations occur more often when animals are in close contact with each other - like in factory farms and live animal (wet) markets.
COVID-19 isn’t the first coronavirus pandemic we’ve experienced, and it won’t be the last.
We’ve known about coronaviruses since the 1960’s, and in the last 20 years, we’ve had COVID-19, MERS, swine flu, bird flu, SARS, and others. Right now, we’re blaming wet markets, but the conditions of factory farms are largely the same. Animals are crammed together in tight spaces, sharing their breath, blood and excrement. Keeping animals in such close proximity for prolonged periods of time gives coronaviruses more opportunities to mutate, as they pass quickly from non-human host to non-human host, eventually adapting to cell receptors in human hosts. By continuing to buy animal products produced in factory-like conditions, we are increasing the risk of zoonotic disease mutation and transmission, and increasing the risk of future pandemics (National Observer, 2019).
So what is the link with climate change?
Factory farms produce most of the meat we currently eat. In the US, 99% of farmed animals live in factory farms (Sentience Institute, 2019). Meat production has exponentially increased, as we now produce four times more meat than in 1961 (Our World in Data, 2019). Food emissions currently make up around 25% of our global greenhouse gas emissions, and animal agriculture is one of the biggest culprits (Our World in Dara, 2019). Of that 25%, animal agriculture is responsible for 53% of emissions, not including supply chain emissions. This is due to the digestive systems of ruminant animals and the volume of resources they need to stay alive. Considering these numbers, decreasing our consumption of animal products is vital to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our fight against the climate crisis.
Below is data from the largest meta-analysis of global food systems to date (Poore and Nemecek, 2018). We love these graphs, as you might’ve seen these if you’ve browsed through our other blog posts.
Making better food choices to prevent the next pandemic and contain the climate crisis.
Clearly, the existence and impact of pandemics on our lives until now hasn’t been enough for us to shift our food choices in the long-term. Previous zoonotic viruses, including COVID-19, showed decreases in meat consumption for a short period of time following the spread of the viruses, but this never stuck (Attwood and Hajat, 2020). Factory farms, wet markets, or other breeding grounds for transmission of zoonotic diseases, are a huge part of the modern animal agriculture industry, and there have been few attempts to ban them or close them down. China tried to ban wet markets after SARS, but the ban was lifted 6 months later. In the same vein, we’ve known about the emissions impact of animal products for some time, and only recently have people started decreasing their consumption of animal products for this reason.
The human population is actively contributing and artificially inflating the risk of future pandemics and a worsening climate. There are many factors and forces at play here, but at its core, animal agriculture is a demand-driven industry fed by societal and cultural norms. Currently, our demand is so high that production can’t keep up without factory-like conditions. The industry produces what we are willing to pay for, that is why what we choose to buy and eat matters. Decreasing our consumption of meat will lead to a decrease in meat production, less factory farms, and less breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases as well as less emissions.
Whether we eat meat from factory farms or wet markets, the conclusion is the same: if we want to avoid future pandemics and curb the climate crisis, we have to stop buying and eating meat produced at our current rate and in these conditions.
At Lighter Foodprint, we believe that there is a lack of awareness on these issues, and we are trying to change that. Our food choices matter when it comes to reducing the risk of future pandemics, a worsening climate, and for a myriad of other reasons too: the plight of animals, labour rights, farmer’s livelihoods, soil health, deforestation, and the list goes on. We urge you to consider your food choices wisely, and to explore other sources of protein. Of course, not everyone is able to abstain from consumption of factory-produced animal products. But if you’re reading this, you probably can, and there are plenty of resources out there to help you transition. We understand that changing ingrained habits can be challenging, but a little goes a long way. You can start with meatless Mondays, buying animal products from small, local farms where animals aren’t kept in cramped conditions (although this is hard to find), substituting your meat protein for plant protein, or choosing meals with a ‘low’ carbon impact when you see our labels (coming soon!).
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for all of us, and the climate crisis has already started. If we continue on as we are, another pandemic and devastating climate impacts aren’t a question of if, but when. We hope that after reading this, you’ll be inspired to consider your food choices with these risks in mind
This post was inspired by “The Two Dark Sides of COVID-19”, a chapter from Peter Singer’s “Why Vegan?”, with Paola Cavalieri.
If you like podcasts, try listening to Ep 17: The Pandemic That Could Have Been Prevented, from the Disclosure Podcast by Earthling Ed.
Why Bill Gates Agrees With Lighter Foodprint: Lessons Learned from “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”
Full disclosure, I’ve never met Bill Gates and I’m quite sure he’s never heard of Lighter Foodprint either. Nonetheless, I managed to sit down with his new book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” and I must say, it’s a must-read for anyone even remotely concerned about the state of our environment. It really puts into perspective not just the current state of the environmental crisis, but all the work we need to do to get to net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050.
Is it possible to get to net zero? Absolutely.
Is it incredibly difficult? Without a doubt.
Despite the roadblocks, Bill Gates encourages us to focus on the positives: we’ve made incredible progress over the past decade, and if we continue to push the rate of innovation and adoption, he’s convinced we can get there.
Here are the three main takeaways from his book that everyone needs to know:
We need to get to NET ZERO - We don’t need a reduction in GHG emissions. We need to get to net zero emissions before 2050. Past this point, we would be facing a climate disaster.
We can’t just do LESS – To meet this net zero goal, we need to fundamentally change the way we make things, consume things, and do business. This means switching away from the mindset of “doing less” (eat less meat, drive less, use less heating) to changing the way we do things (eat plant-based, manufacture cheaper electric cars, use natural gas for heating instead of fossil fuels). In point 3, you’ll find another example.
We need to change the way we grow and consume food – We need to change our food system, which accounts for 19% of all GHG emissions every year, making it the third largest contributor to annual emissions.
How Bad is the Meat Industry?
Raising animals for food emits several GHGs. Among these,, the biggest culprits are methane (which causes 28 times more warming than carbon dioxide) and nitrous oxide (which causes 265 times more warning). There are around a billion cattle in the world right now being raised for beef and dairy, all of which contribute their fair share of nitrous oxide and methane from poops, burps and farts (there’s really no better way to say this so try not to laugh).
If that wasn’t bad enough, population growth contributes to even higher levels of demand for meat. The global population is projected to grow to 10 billion by 2100. With a 40% increase in population, this means that we need 40% more food right? Well…not exactly.
As countries get richer, they tend to consume more calories and protein (although generally true, this isn’t the case for every single person), meaning we just can’t rely on the traditional methods of producing meat because of how fundamentally inefficient meat production actually is.
Let’s think of meat production in terms of calories. For every calorie of input (wheat, feed, etc.), ideally we’d want one calorie of meat as output. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t quite that way. Take a look at the table below, which summarizes the inputs and outputs of each meat category:
For every two calories of feed for chicken production, we get one calorie of poultry. Beef is the worst offender, only producing 17% of the calories used to feed the cows in the first place. We raise 56 billion land animals for our own consumption, 8 times our own population… which means we are currently growing enough food to solve world hunger and feed a growing population. We’re just feeding it to the animals we eat first. What if we ate that food ourselves, instead of feeding them to billions of farm animals?
A Common Argument…And Why It Doesn’t Work
We’ve all probably heard the argument before: “If meat is so bad, why can’t we just stop eating meat entirely? If meat is so bad, we should just stop raising livestock”. Simple. Right?
Theoretically, this approach works. If we completely erased animal agriculture without any repercussions, this would make significant progress in the crusade against climate change.
But unfortunately, there are repercussions.
The main problem: meat is a key part of human culture. In many countries, meat is crucial for celebrations and festivals. Is erasing a part of our culture something we can do to get to net zero? Is it something we can even impose on other countries? Somehow, it doesn’t sit right with me.
Another problem: in poorer countries, people rely on meat as their main source of protein and in some cases, as their only source of income. Taking that away from them would be inhumane.
So maybe we won’t completely erase meat from our diets. However, there are solutions that for now, only wealthier countries can afford.
Solution #1 – Plant-Based Meat
Bill might have been biased when he wrote this part of the book as he was one of the first investors in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. But there’s no denying the impact. Plant-based meats emit less GHGs and use up significantly less space and water. You might have already tried an A&W Beyond Meat Burger or Starbucks Beyond English Muffin and hopefully, you came to the same conclusion I did: it tastes pretty good.
Solution #1 – Cell-Based Meat
This one is a little further down the road. Although plant-based meat can mimic minced meat quite well, it’s harder to do this with steak. Cell-based meat is meat that’s grown in a lab. So this isn’t “pretend” meat. This meat is identical to what we have now, with the only difference being how it’s produced: scientists obtain cells from cows or pigs, let the cells multiply, then eventually the tissue is formed, which essentially becomes the meat we eat.
This method requires even less water and emits even less GHGs than plant-based meats (and saves countless animals from suffering), but like I said, this might not hit the market until a decade or so down the line.
Some Roadblocks to Meat Alternatives
The main factor holding back plant-based and cell-based meat from becoming a household staple right now is cost. Right now, the substitutes are around 86% more expensive than the real thing since it’s so new to the market, with less demand and economies of scale to bring down production costs.
What can we do about this?
Well, simple. If you can afford it, buy it. Switch out meat entirely from your diet and treat yourself to a hearty platter of plant-based beef. Although the costs are high right now, the more these products are sold, the more the producers can find cheaper ways of making them cheaper (and subsequently sell them at a more affordable price point).
And why not try a variety of different brands? The more competition there is between different producers, the more incentive they’ll have to lower their prices to capture more customers. What we need right now more than anything is for those prices to go down to the point where they’re cheaper than actual meat. That’s the way we’ll achieve large-scale adoption.
Why Lighter Foodprint Agrees with Bill Gates
We agree with our good friend Bill (again, emphasizing that we’ve never actually met him); as soon as we can eliminate meat consumption, we’re on our way to getting to net zero emissions by 2050.
We know that there is a demand for more plant-based foods in Vancouver, especially in restaurants. By closing the communication gap and informing consumers the level of carbon emissions associated with menu items, consumers will make better informed decisions and use their voices to share a collective message to restaurants: “We want more low carbon alternatives. We need to get to net zero”.
And like I said, the increased demand and price competition will eventually lower meat alternative prices, making it available to almost everyone.
So, what can you do to help speed up this process? Well, aside from stopping by A&W for a Beyond Meat Burger, send your favourite restaurant a dm and throw in a suggestion for them to include climate labels (find a template on our Take Action page)! We’d love to connect and we need all the support we can get to get this project off the ground.
If you’re passionate about the environment and making a change through food systems, we’re hiring - reach out!
And Bill, if you’re reading this, give us a shout out in your next book!
“What Matters to You in Restaurants & Menus?” 2020 Survey Results
In late 2020, we conducted a public online survey with close to 300 residents in the Lower Mainland to learn more about what matters to them in restaurants and menus.
About the Surveyed Population
The largest age group of the respondents were between the ages of 18 to 24 (42%), followed by ages 25-34 (33%). Over 50% of respondents have a dietary restriction, defined as eating a vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or flexitarian diet (figure 1). When cross examining the two tables, the younger the age bracket, the less percentage of omnivores there are.
Figure 1: Diet of Respondents
What Matters to Customers When Selecting a Restaurant and Ordering
What Matters When Choosing What to Order on the Menu
This is a surprisingly positive result because it shows that people are actively factoring sustainable, local, and organic options into their decision-making. Besides offering delicious meals at a reasonable price, people are voicing that they want to have sustainable, local, and organic options over online recommendations, speed and convenience.
The significance of this result is that restaurants can use this information to strategize how they plan to grow a loyal consumer base and adapt to changing consumer demands. Restaurants can consider investments in providing more sustainable and attractive menu options or communicating their sustainable values to customers.
How Much Do People Care About the Environmental Impact of a Restaurant?
When selecting a restaurant, 80% of respondents consider the restaurant’s environmental practice (eg. energy efficiency, water saving, minimal single-use packaging). When ordering from the menu, over 57% of respondents consider the dishes’ environmental impact (eg. low carbon footprint ingredients).
How Available is Information on the Environmental Impact?
Overwhelmingly, 93% of respondents feel like information on the environmental impact of their food choices is not available in restaurants. If such information was available, 86% would consider this information to make more sustainable decisions. If a restaurant were to offer such information, 96% would have a more favorable perception of the restaurant. Customers agree that this favorable perception would be shown as increased loyalty to the restaurant, more frequent visits, recommending the restaurant to others, and promoting the restaurant on social media.
Today’s customers are evolving with growing demands. Along with increased environmental awareness and climate education, they want to know where their purchases come from, how they are produced and how sustainable they are. Since COVID 19, people have become more vocal in their community, as well as more politically active and environmentally aware. With the data from this survey, we feel even more certain in the change we’re trying to make.
From Lighter Foodprint’s perspective, we were delightfully surprised to find that 57% of respondents already consider the dishes’ environmental impact as they are the ones who would be the first to benefit from having the data made available through our climate labels. In addition, learning that 86% of respondents said that they would use this information to make more sustainable decisions is a big conviction to support our mission in lowering food’s impact on the climate.
This survey allowed us to learn more about the Vancouver consumer demographic and we are grateful to all those who participated! Thank you again for your support and we look forward to closing this information gap in our community by introducing climate labels in our community.
If you are a restaurant and interested in our climate labels, please don’t hesitate to reach out! We are seeking pilot locations. Otherwise, subscribe to our newsletter or social media platforms to keep in touch!
Carbon Calculators Compared
What is a carbon footprint? A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide (and often other greenhouse gases) emitted as a result of various activities from a particular person, group, etc, such as fossil fuel combustion. Rather than the greenhouse gas emissions associated with production, carbon footprints focus on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with consumption. It is typically expressed as grams of carbon dioxide equivalent (gCO2e ). Usually we think of this in relation to the emissions emitted from the car we drive, or the heating in our homes, but greenhouse gases are emitted from many other parts in our lives as well, including food. If you’ve perused through our website you’ll have seen that food emits up to a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions (see Figure 1). The majority of food emissions come from the farm and land-use stage, and the emissions from these vary greatly between different food types (see Figure 2). This is why choosing the types of food we eat truly matters when it comes to reducing our personal carbon footprint.
Carbon calculators are a tool that help you find out the carbon footprint of your choices. Knowing this puts the impact of our daily choices into perspective, and will hopefully inspire you to find ways to reduce your personal carbon footprint.
Here at Lighter Foodprint, we’re interested in the emissions from our food choices. Have you ever wondered what your carbon foodprint is? To make your job easier, we’ve compiled and compared some of the most popular free and online calculators!
This carbon calculator by My Emissions calculates your daily food emissions.
The Vegan Society calculates the carbon footprint of individual meals or recipes. You add each ingredient and they’ll calculate.
The BBC calculates the yearly emissions and water use of foods you eat, depending how often you eat them. It also compares the results of the food you chose to other foods providing the same nutrients.
Foodprint tells you how you’re doing on a scale, and provides tips on how you can improve the sustainability of your food choices as a whole.
Our goal with climate labels is to give you this information while you’re making your food choices. We hope that these calculators give you a better idea of how your food choices impact climate change, and inspire you to keep the climate in mind when it comes to eating!
Remember to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media for more updates!
Learn More About Food and Climate Change
Food is part of our everyday lives, it exists in our fridge, dining table, desk and even sometimes in the cracks between the cushions on our couch! Today, most people get their food either from grocery stores or in restaurants. Obtaining food now is so convenient that it is easy to forget where our food comes from, and that what we purchase is an indicative vote to the entire food supply chain of the kind of agricultural practice and types of crops we want.
Food production accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and half of the world’s habitable (ice and desert-free) land is used for agriculture. The urgency of the climate crisis and the significant impact that food has on greenhouse gas emissions means that food services and consumers have an important role to play in their food choices, by creating demand for less carbon-intensive foods.
Here are a few handy resources to learn more about the connection between food and climate change.
Documentaries to deep dive the not-well-known ‘secrets’ of certain food supply chains
Seaspiracy (NEW-released March 2021!): From the co-creator who brought you the groundbreaking documentary Cowspiracy comes Seaspiracy, a follow up that illuminates alarming – and not widely known – truths about the widespread environmental destruction to our oceans caused by human behaviour. Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi initially set out to celebrate his beloved ocean, but instead found himself examining the harm that humans inflict upon the vulnerable seas. From plastics and fishing gear polluting the waters, to the irreparable damage of bottom trawling and by-catch, to illegal fishing and devastating hunting practices, humanity is wreaking havoc on marine life and, by extension, the entire planet. What Tabrizi ultimately uncovered not only challenges notions of sustainable fishing but will shock anyone who cares about the wonders of ocean life, as well as the future of the planet and our place on it. Available on Netflix.
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret: This groundbreaking documentary investigates the huge impact of animal agriculture on the environment, and the lack of awareness and action on the issue. Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime, or for $3.99 on YouTube or Google Play.
Meat the Truth: Livestock farming causes 18% of greenhouse gas emissions whereas transportation is only responsible for 13%. How can this be? It’s rather simple. When you put together all the methane produced by belching and farting cows, the destruction of the rainforests, and pesticides you get a recipe for disaster. Learn more about the environmental impact of farming livestock. You can find it for free in the link we provided.
Food, Inc: Food, Inc focuses on how food corporations have changed the way we produce food. They place profits before population health, worker well-being, and the environment (although they don’t mention the impact on emissions - this documentary is from 2009!). You can watch it for free in the link we provided or with an Amazon Prime subscription.
Organizations researching and reporting on the impacts of food and climate change
The most impactful way you can help is by eating foods with a lower environmental impact (eg. plant based). Another way would be to send your favourite restaurant a message and suggest them to include climate labels on their menu (find a template to copy and paste on our Take Action page). We need to fundamentally improve how people think about food, so any small action can help. Together, we can spread awareness and learn to eat for a healthier planet!
Lighter Foodprint's Origin Story
Although not even a year has passed since our team came together and decided on the name “Lighter Foodprint”, a lot has happened up until this point. Our project plan has changed time and time again with the discovery of new information, but our ultimate goal remains the same: to reduce the environmental impact of food consumption in our community.
Before we were Lighter Foodprint, before we were even a “group”, we were individuals who cared about the environment and all ended up joining the second ever Envirolab cohortfrom a Vancouver local non-profit organization, CityHive.
Envirolab is a series of thematic labs focused on engaging the youth on urban sustainability topics and to use the various backgrounds and expertise of the participants to come up with solutions to environmental issues. Our original members, Sandy, Theo, Alyssa, Elyse, and Austin were part of the second cohort, which focused on the Climate Emergency, and during the group formation exercise, they all gravitated toward one another because of the common interest in addressing sustainability from the perspective of local food systems.
From there, Lighter Foodprint was born.
The Original Plan: Grocery Stores
Our initial goal was to target consumption in grocery stores since it is one of the main sources where we get our food. Our rationale was that there were millions of transactions everyday in grocery stores, affecting every food item imaginable: meat, produce, consumer packaged goods, and so on. If we were able to inform every grocery store consumer about the environmental impacts of their purchases, those millions of purchases would slowly shift away from carbon-intensive products, and move towards sustainable alternatives.
So our team took a few months to learn everything we could about the dynamics of grocery stores: what products are sold? Who decides what products are placed where in a grocery store? Who are the key decision makers? What is the relationship dynamic between suppliers, distributors and grocery stores? Do they make a higher margin on more sustainable items? What kinds of consumers would be inclined to change their consumption habits?
We integrated ourselves into the grocery store space, talking to as many experts in the space as possible. However, we slowly learned there were systematic barriers that made our idea difficult to execute as a small player in the industry.
Distributors work with grocery stores to determine the placement and display of a product in store. Prioritization of the items for the store to promote or place in more optimal positions depend on the bargaining power of distributors. Distributors can include large Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brands (eg. PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz) or brokers who represent many smaller, individual brands. They facilitate deals between suppliers and grocery stores, which results in strictly determined product placement and displays. In order for our label ideas to be adopted in grocery stores, we would have to gather consensus of every stakeholder in the chain. The decision making power within a grocery store is distributed with many interests at play, making this a difficult market to shake up from a sustainability labelling perspective.
Lighter Foodprint Mark II: Restaurants
We then turned our eyes towards another influential segment in the food community of Vancouver: restaurants. Decision making in restaurants is more concentrated, and owners have full control over what goes on the menu. In addition, Vancouver’s foodie culture served as the perfect target to create environmental awareness. And so the idea pivoted to place environmental labels on restaurant menus, indicating the relative level of carbon emissions associated with the entire life cycle of each menu item. With Vancouver’s booming restaurant scene and climate-conscious population, we are now working with restaurants to increase awareness of food emissions and help customers make purchasing decisions that align with their sustainable values.
Thank you again to CityHive for being such a great support and champion along the way for our work! Follow along on our journey as we work with more community partners to bring climate labels to Vancouver! Subscribe to our email newsletter or follow us on Instagram and Facebook!