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Four years ago, I decided I no longer wanted to simply observe what was happening with our world but to actively look for ways to be more sustainable and share my findings about this on my blog. By this point, I was already slowly cutting down my own meat consumption. But was that really such an effective way of reducing my ecological footprint?
Can you still recall the biology lesson about trophic levels? This presupposes that a herbivore, for example, needs to eat ten kilos of grass to increase a single kilo in body weight. A predator, in turn, eats ten kilos of these herbivores to gain one kilo. Energy is lost at each step. At that time, I didn’t yet link this theory to the food on my plate.
A bigger eye opener came when I watched the documentary Cowspiracy in 2014. For the first time I had an understanding of how vast the meat industry is and how much land and water it requires. Those precious rainforests are absolutely not being cleared because there is too little farmland for our own food, but because we use as much as three quarters of all farmland across the world for cultivating cattle feed. Food for our food. It became increasingly clear to me how much more effective it is if we eat a lot less meat and eat more straight off the land. Not yet even considering animal suffering.
The fact that consuming less meat and other animal products makes sense had become clear to me. But we also need drive our cars less, burn less fuel for heating, fly less and use less plastic. As a beginner it is rather overwhelming to change your entire behaviour all at once and even for the more experienced it is almost impossible to do everything perfectly. This is why I wanted to figure out how these things relate to eachother so that we can focus on what is most effective.
I found a few websites online which you can use to calculate your ecological footprint. The trends were clear. What was striking was the huge effect of the long-haul flights I was taking every year. The impact of food consequently followed in second place. All the tests provided fairly diverse results and it was not clear which figures and calculations had resulted in these outcomes.
Even before I was able to look for answers, they fell into my lap. The newly released book ‘The Hidden Impact’ by Babette Porcelijn provided answers to all my questions. The most important sustainability aspects were covered using figures, calculations and insightful comments and infographics. Four years later and it is without doubt still the most valuable book in my quest for a more sustainable life. If you read one book on sustainability, let it be this one.
The entire chain is included in ‘The Hidden Impact’. From production and transport to consumption and ultimately the discarding of products, including everything that takes place out of sight in other countries. Suddenly we can see how much water is used in the production of meat or a pair of cotton jeans, how many toxic substances are released during mining for metals found in your laptop and how much CO2 is released during the construction of a house. By adding together the use of water, land and energy and the effect on the environment, Babette was able to determine which aspects of our consumption have the greatest effect on climate and environment.
The surprising winner: stuff. Not driving a car, eating meat or flying, but stuff. In terms of the impact of the stuff we own, we perhaps only just think of the power our laptops use. Besides, stuff seems to ‘spontaneously’ appear in shops and just as readily disappears again after the garbage truck came by, but if you look at the whole chain then the effect turns out to be enormous. Electronics in particular are especially harmful to the environment. This whole category is being overlooked in the online footprint tests.
Eating meat prominently shows up in second place. Dairy products and eggs score a little lower, but given the relatively small quantities you usually use of these, it has a fairly high impact. The impact of meat, dairy products and eggs together score slightly lower than the impact of stuff. If you also add up the impact of vegetable foods, fish, alcohol, soft drinks and snacks, you can state that the effect of all your food together makes up the largest impact and that making sustainable choices in this aspect are the most efficient.
The calculated effect applies to an average Dutch person who eats an average amount of meat, buys stuff, travels and lives in an average house. Of course, no one is average, so it is worth figuring out your own impact via the website mijnverborgenimpact.nl. That long-haul flight, for instance, appears to distort the picture and also the purchasing of stuff is something that can vary considerably from person to person and from year to year. In addition, the impact made by this average Dutch person turns out to be around three and a half times greater than our earth can manage and we will, therefore, have to further increase our sustainability efforts than just trying to achieve a better score than this average Dutch person.
The advantage of food is that we are able to make choices that really matter three times a day. Enhancing efficient sustainability with your fork! Some people change course from one day to the next. For me it was easier to gradually reduce my meat and then also dairy consumption. Even if exclusively eating vegetarian or vegan food is not feasible or desirable, you can significantly reduce your ecological footprint by opting for a plant-based alternative more often.
As a lazy cook I needed quite some time to learn new recipes, but in this way I could gradually build-in new habits that are lasting. I now like to use lentils, chickpeas, tofu or meat substitutes, I replace dairy with non-dairy alternatives to milk and yoghurt and bake with vegetable oil and a spoonful of apple sauce instead of an egg. I eat more vegetables, less fat and have even learnt to cook tastier dishes. Before you know it, you won’t want anything else!