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How can you make lunch while thinking about the planet?

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Eating is a political act " wrote the philosopher Corine Pelluchon... (1). Today, everyone knows that the slightest of their daily gestures has an impact on the planet and on their personal health. But in the face of consumer trends, the incessant flow of new products offered by retailers, the jumble of labels, how can we buy and eat not only healthy food but also food that respects the planet? Eating "sustainable" should be the way of life for all of us. Stephan Marette and Maïmouna Yokessa, researchers at INRA, give us some keys. 
 
An addition to the issues at stake for our health, the food we consume also has an impact on the health of the planet; in recent years, indicators have highlighted the degradation of the environment and biodiversity attributable to certain agricultural practices and consumption patterns.
 

In France, for example, there is a particularly high decline in the number of birds. This is due to pollution caused by the use of plant protection products and the intensification of human activities. This is an important issue: according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), 35 % of global agricultural production depends on pollination.

It should also be noted that the quality of river water severely degraded by the same chemical pollution from agricultural activities. Finally, it should be remembered that in France, agriculture contributes up to 20 % to greenhouse gas emissions whose accumulation in the atmosphere disrupts the climate.

Less meat

One of the levers to fight against these degradations is to involve consumers so that they direct their purchases towards more environmentally friendly foods. Recent research - including that of IPBES, which will report its results in March 2018 - is looking at these issues. environmental and nutritional issues of food consumption.

Examples include the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and ECO₂ Initiative that have used scientific work as a basis for proposing possible developments.

The main changes they point to would be a reduction in the proportion of meat and fish in favour of legumes (beans, lentils, peas, soybeans, etc.) and tubers (potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, turnips, parsnips, etc.); and a reduction in the proportion of industrially processed foods in favour of an increase in the proportion of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

In their report, WWF and ECO2 propose not to eat meat or fish 3 days a week. This corresponds to a decrease of 31 % of meat consumption and 40 % of fish consumption.

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It is also possible to envisage, for the same budget, a more balanced diet with quality food by favouring certified or labelled products (such as organic or Label Rouge products). Indeed, according to the same report, the reduction in the cost of the food basket obtained thanks to the reduction in the consumption of meat and fish makes it possible to introduce around 50 % of labelled foods.

According to many studies, a reduction in the consumption of beef meat would have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving consumer health in the long term. Eating meat would not be an environmental nonsense, provided it comes from farms that are at least partially raised outdoors; because grasslands allow carbon sequestration in the soil.

A shift towards farming methods with animals in the open air would thus make it possible to preserve these grasslands and thus sequester carbon. Livestock would consume more grass, reducing the amount of agricultural land used for the production of animal feed.

Producing "better" food

D’further research are interested in food improvement. The development of organic food can be seen as a credible way to reduce thepesticide use which degrade the ecological status of surface freshwater and coastal waters, reduce terrestrial biodiversity and cause excess bee mortality.

The development of legumes can also be considered: they are particularly rich in plant proteins, fibres and minerals, and they are also an excellent way of enriching plots by fixing nitrogen in the soil before planting subsequent crops such as wheat or maize. This can allow a savings of 20 % on the nitrogen fertilizers used, contributing to emissions of nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas.

Of course, most of these practices are very technical and difficult to communicate in a simple way to consumers.

How to inform well?

There is currently no obligation to inform consumers about the environmental impact of food products. And the information available often does not allow consumers to take into account the environmental characteristics of products, nor to reward the efforts of producers seeking to develop sustainable practices, especially when these good practices have little or no impact on organoleptic quality - i.e. taste, odour, mouthfeel, etc. - or on the quality of the product. - and nutritional quality of food.

This lack of regulated information leaves room for a proliferation of certifications and labels, claims and mentions more or less related to the environment.

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Moreover, consumers are not always aware of some of the consequences of their consumption practices, such as waste, pollution linked to their trips to the supermarket, or the imperfect recycling of packaging.

It would therefore be interesting to move towards synthetic indicators that are simple to interpret, combining colours and letters, such as those indicating the energy consumption of certain household appliances. ("the energy label").

As environmental damage is diverse, complex and not subject to scientific consensus, such an approach, before being validated, would require research on the content, form and impact of such environmental information on eating behaviour.

Beyond information and labels

Faced with these limitations of information strategies, other instruments can be used to complement labels, such as taxation or subsidy mechanisms depending on the type of product (environmentally friendly or not)... even if consumers sometimes accept to pay more to maintain their eating habits.

There are also norms and standards imposing a minimum level of quality and/or safety. For example, maximum levels of pesticide residues in food or water. This could also be the case for an obligation to supplement the feed of dairy cows. by flax seedsThis would reduce methane emissions from cows and increase the omega-3 content of milk.

However, standards have the disadvantage of reducing product diversity, as each producer has an incentive to produce a good that meets just the minimum level of quality. They also restrict competition by excluding from the market firms unable to bear the increase in production costs linked in particular to the use of new production processes.

Until markets and policy regulations put these instruments in place to guide consumers towards environmentally friendly food products, it is up to each individual to consider the impact of their environmental practices.

Stephan MaretteResearch Director at INRA, economist, Agro ParisTech - Université Paris-Saclay and Maimouna YokessaDoctoral student, INRA

(1) « The foods " by Corine Pelluchon - Edition du Seuil, 2015

The original text of this article was published on The Conversationeditorial partner of UP' Magazine

To go further

- Book "The Carnivorous Feast" by Catherine Véglio, lemieux éditeur, 2017

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