The right to food is enshrined in international law – and is something people take for granted in Switzerland. The country’s last major famine was two centuries ago. If anything, there is an oversupply of food in Switzerland today. Consumers are used to being able to obtain almost any kind of food at almost any time. To do this they avail of resources from other countries. According to the Swiss Farmer’s Union, around half of the country’s food is imported. Hence, considerably more than half of the environmental impacts associated with the food consumed in Switzerland arise abroad, including the transport involved in such imports. If the Swiss would like to reduce their global footprint, they will have to change their diets. Supplying food generates by far the greatest impact in the area of consumption.
Reducing waste is the simplest way of reducing the footprint. This basic rule of resource efficiency also applies to food. According to the Federal Office for the Environment’s (FOEN) study “Survey of Waste Composition 2012”, 240,000 tonnes of food fit for consumption ends up in the household waste. And yet, it would be easy to avoid food waste if people would only buy what they need. If leftovers still arise, most dishes can be stored and re-heated the following day. Scrutiny of ‘best-before’ dates does not necessarily have to result in the discarding of supposedly out-of-date food. The dates on packaging indicate the minimum shelf-life. The food may still be suitable for consumption after the specified date.
The greatest reduction in resource use by far can be achieved by lowering the consumption of animal food products. People who refrain completely from eating meat can reduce their food-related environmental impact by 37 percent. Today’s food production consumes large areas of land for the cultivation of animal feed and produces large volumes of greenhouse gas. Even if you do not want to give up eating meat entirely, you can still do something: the environmental impact of a meat-free canteen meal is only one third of one that contains meat. Reducing meat consumption to once or twice a week is also good for your health and is now recommended by doctors.
A conscious approach to the consumption of luxury foods also reduces resource consumption. Today’s debate surrounding the consumption of alcohol, coffee and chocolate is dominated by health concerns. However, they also have a major impact on the environment: according to a study carried out in 2012 by Swiss researchers and consultants ESU-Services, luxury foods and beverages like coffee, chocolate and alkohol account for 19 percent of the food sector’s environmental impact. If you would like to reduce your environmental impact in this area, ensure that your coffee and chocolate are produced under fair conditions and enjoy wine in moderation.*
The consumption of organic products can reduce individual environmental impact. According to a 2012 study carried out on behalf of the Federal Office for the Environment on the environmental impacts of private consumption and the potential for reducing them, a person who only eats organic products for an entire year generates an environmental impact of 4.2 million ecopoint (Umweltbelastungspunkte,UBP). In contrast, the environmental impact generated by a person who eats standard food reaches almost 5 million ecopoints. Organic products reduce the impacts on soil by plant protection products, however they require more land. They are not cultivated in heated greenhouses and, in accordance with the criteria of important organic labels like Bio Suisse, Coop Naturaplan and Migros Bio, they may not be flown into the country. However, the organic vegetables on your plate do not compensate entirely for the environmental impact of the piece of meat beside them.
Seasonal products reduce the impacts generated by greenhouses. If you eat fruit and vegetables when they are in season, you will not create any need for heated greenhouses and imported air-freighted fruit. When in season, strawberries and asparagus cause very little impact on the environment, but their impact out of season is considerable. In contrast, carrots and leeks cause little environmental impact throughout the year. A look at our grandmothers’ cookbooks can help here: the foods they recommended for eating in winter, in a time when eating habits were dictated by the season, can still be purchased without misgiving during the cold season today. However, even if you adhere to the principle of only buying regional produce in season, it will not have the same effect in terms of reducing resource consumption as the substituting a piece of meat with a vegetarian alternative.