Food is no free lunch

Every time you eat something, you eat up a portion of the planet. That is a fundamental law of nature. Every time you consume something, you take up something from the real world and that has an impact, regardless of whether you accept responsibility or not.

And if your phone could also show how much you and others in the world are gobbling up the world in real time, would you change what you eat? Not just what you eat, but how and when you eat it? Any geek who is savvy with algorithms can figure out how to do that. But the problem is, if she did it now, there would be great big holes in the information that she needs to give you that most important picture of your foodprint on the planet. 

Why? Because most of the data on the environmental impact of what we eat on the planet has just been on the "usual suspects," mainly the usual livestock – beef, pigs, and poultry – and about 10 crops. We know those. We know that our picture of agriculture largely focused on these livestock and only some of these crops, and even as far back as 20 years ago this accounted for almost 40% of the total landmass of the planet. The studies on wild harvest from land habitats as well as aquatic and marine are not done nearly as much as the one done on the "usual suspects." And even with those "usual suspects," their studied impact has been limited to how much greenhouse gases they emit and how much land and freshwater they eat up. Other "stressors" such as acidification, pollution, packaging, and transport have not been studied nearly as much, when they could most likely make for a bleaker picture, which could probably finally make us all agree that climate change is a crisis for all and not the battle cry only for environmentalists. 

A study on the gaps in research done on the environmental impact of the food we eat just came out, and they found that other foods (examples are other kinds of meat, microalgae, buckwheat, sorghum, and insects) that have hardly been assessed account for more than half of the animal food production in 76 countries and more than 25% of the total food in 40 countries. In the same study, they pointed out that these understudied foods are at the core of the protein requirements of the populations of many developing nations. Imagine the consequences to billions of people if the impacts of these foods remain hidden from our knowledge. That is a lot of food under the radar! 

If we do not know much about all these foods and their impact and how they are interlinked with the impact of other food systems locally and around the world, the ground that sustains us may be being pulled from underneath us faster than the 10 years we have left before the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis become irreversible. 

In all kinds of mission/vision statements of NGOs and governments, "food security" figures prominently. The word "food" is like a plutonium-grade magnet for anyone's attention. Tell them that you want to ensure food security, and nobody will disagree with you. But the problem is, hardly anyone funds, and therefore, hardly anyone conducts these critical studies on these underassessed foods, which is why we know very little about them, if any at all. 

If we knew more about more kinds of foods and their impact, then we could make better individual and community judgments as well as national policies that will affect our food security. For example, we will know how much backyard farms of certain crops will really make a positive difference in the human and environmental health of a community of a certain scale. We will know better about how much protein we can source from the traditional sources such as cows and how much we can rely on others. That way, we will not be in a position where the benefit of getting protein from beef will be offset by the harm from the pollution caused by getting that protein in your system.  

In the study, it was mentioned that feeding cows seaweed will significantly reduce the methane that they pass. How much seaweed farms could we allot to our beef requirements so that we still come out neutral in terms of impact? The world, especially Asians, love rice, but how much is our tenacity to a singular grain costing us? Could we perhaps also spin off another Asian love affair with another grain or several other kinds of grain? How much of our own emotional investment in rice are we willing to forego to be secure in the way we eat?  

Studying the impact of food beyond the usual - cows, pigs, poultry, and the 10 crops – will make us see more in the increasingly dimmer tunnel into the future. There will be trade-offs, but we will know more about the real cost of what we are eating to our own health and to the heath of the planet.

So every time you eat a burger, wherever you buy it from, it is scientifically valid to picture in your head a portion of the earth going up in smoke (methane) and that methane coming back to haunt you in hotter summers, draughts, and nastier typhoons. That is the actual foodprint of a burger. Multiply that picture 7 billion times for every human being who has to eat something – anything – including foods that have not yet reached eat-all-you-can buffets.  

Food is no free lunch. Getting food to become calories leaves a hot trail of a mess in the world, which comes around to haunt our minds and bodies. That is what we need to have a picture of so we are not eating in the dark, only to find out there is none left, or that what is left could not sustain us. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at