(Petrunjela/stock.com, 2018)


2. Reduce Consumption

While webpages 2.1-4 have attempted to provide some overview on consumption, it is time now to focus on specific significant areas. Food, accounting for up to a third of our consumptive impact, well and truly qualifies as ‘significant’.

On closer examination, this impact is not surprising. Agriculture for food (and fibre) often leads to land clearing, energy use in production, processing and transportation, herbicide, insecticide and fertiliser application and run-off, CO2 release, water use, and more. As to the latter, it is by far the greatest user of water around the world – in the vicinity of 70% – making everything else done to address water consumption ‘small beer’ indeed. For example, Fig. 17 Living Planet Report 20061:

(WWF. 2006. Global Water Withdrawals)

Perhaps in an easier-to-understand metric than cubic kilometres, the FAO produced the following graphic in 20122 of water required for some everyday foods. From it some general patterns are already emerging, namely, that:

  • the higher up the food chain the food or good is, the more resources are consumed; and
  • the more processing involved in its production, the more resources used.

To illustrate this, the startling global average water used – 2,400 litres – to produce a hamburger is explained, in considerable measure, by its beef content, drawn from a relatively long-lived, large, higher-order animal that consumes considerable resources to produce meat. The environmental impact of the beef industry, and indeed all meat, dairy and seafood agriculture, is explored in the challenging documentary ‘Cowspiracy’3.


The shorter (15 mins) version can be seen here – COWSPIRACY – The Sustainability Secret in about 15 minutes (Short Version) – Bing video – and it has exceptional, clear, graphics to deliver its points. A summary of its key messages can be represented here:


it concludes that to genuinely reduce your impact you must significantly reduce, or eliminate, the meat and seafood in your diet and become vegan or vegetarian, or more nearly so. By so doing it says that you will reduce your impact, measured in land area, by a factor of 1/6th – 1/18th, compared to an omnivorous diet4 (see below):


Not surprisingly, the documentary drew considerable criticism, but as far as I can tell – and I am by no means an expert in this area – its data comes from verifiable and reputable sources, e.g. the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and I think much of the criticism could be put down simply to the shock at the sheer size of the livestock and seafood industries, and incomprehension at how much energy is used, lost and ‘wasted’ – as you ascend the food chain – for example, in producing meat – because of the second law of thermodynamics.

If it seems that there is little doubt that if we are to make significant inroads on the impacts of our food consumption, we must move our diets down, or towards, the lower trophic level of the plants, how is this achieved, and what is it like to do so?

Barbara Kingsolver is a well-known and most interesting author of numerous books, many of which have, at the least, an environmental back-drop (e.g. ‘Flight Behaviour’5, or ‘Unsheltered’6). The book, though, that concerns us here is ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’7, where Barbara and family set out to live for a year on their small farm in Virginia, USA, eating only that which they can grow on the farm or trade locally. They are not vegans, or vegetarian, and the book is more wry and humorous than doctrinaire, but it is no less intellectually and emotionally engaging for that. A review for ‘Publishers Weekly’8, by Nina Planck, nicely summed it up with: “Novelist Kingsolver recounts a year spent eating home-grown food and, if not that, local. Accomplished gardeners, the Kingsolver clan grow a large garden in southern Appalachia and spend summers ‘putting food by,’ as the classic kitchen title goes. They make pickles, chutney and mozzarella; they jar tomatoes, braid garlic and stuff turkey sausage. Nine-year-old Lily runs a heritage poultry business, selling eggs and meat. What they don’t raise (lamb, beef, apples) comes from local farms. Come winter, they feast on root crops and canned goods, menus slouching toward asparagus. Along the way, the Kingsolver family, having given up industrial meat years before, abandons its vegetarian ways and discovers the pleasures of conscientious carnivory. This field—local food and sustainable agriculture—is crowded with books in increasingly predictable flavors: the earnest manual, diary of an epicure, the environmental battle cry, the accidental gardener. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is all of these, and much smarter. Kingsolver takes the genre to a new literary level; a well-paced narrative and the apparent ease of the beautiful prose makes the pages fly. Her tale is both classy and disarming, substantive and entertaining, earnest and funny. Kingsolver is a moralist (“the conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners”), but more often wry than pious. Another hazard of the genre is snobbery. You won’t find it here. Seldom do paeans to heirloom tomatoes (which I grew up selling at farmers’ markets) include equal respect for outstanding modern hybrids like Early Girl. Kingsolver has the ear of a journalist and the accuracy of a naturalist. She makes short, neat work of complex topics: what’s risky about the vegan diet, why animals belong on ecologically sound farms…Kingsolver is not the first to note our national ‘eating disorder’ and the injuries industrial agriculture wreaks, yet this practical vision of how we might eat instead is as fresh as just-picked sweet corn. The narrative is peppered with useful sidebars on industrial agriculture and ecology (by husband Steven Hopp) and recipes (by daughter Camille), as if to show that local food—in the growing, buying, cooking, eating and the telling—demands teamwork”.

There’s much to think on here, to agree with, disagree with, and sympathise with, but I think it paves the way for intelligent entry into a world of better food with lower impact. The problem with all the books, magazines, TV shows and guides on how to eat/live better/more sustainably, is that they are so often based on farms with extensive resources of land, water, machinery and so forth and while they serve as good models for larger-scale production, they bear little relationship to how the great majority of the earth’s population lives now. How, then, to ‘do it better’ with little space and few resources?

Luckily, into this space has stepped a number of intrepid ‘gardeners’, one of whom I had the pleasure of working with at the award-winning Greensteps Program at Monash University in Melbourne. Kat Lavers applied her conceptual and practical skills to just the above problem on a tiny parcel of land (280m2) in inner Melbourne and her experiences, and successes (Kat has this little site ‘pumping’: 428 kgs of food produced in 2018 – well done Kat!), make essential reading for anyone seriously thinking of eating and producing more sensitively, sustainably, and enjoyably. Kat’s experiences and tips can be viewed at: https://www.katlavers.com/. Her site covers, amongst other things:

  • Permaculture ideas and links (this is the backbone of Kat’s work)
  • Events and workshops (e.g. ‘Manage Garden Pests’)
  • Tours
  • Blog
  • Videos
  • FAQ


(Lavers, K. 2019. ‘The Plummery’: small, inner-urban backyard, Melbourne)


Seafood is an important source of animal protein for many humans and its consumption, in concert with all other measures, has increased markedly in recent decades, with commensurate damage to oceans and freshwaters (see ‘State of the Environment’ and section 1.3.3, ‘Books’ – ‘Cod’).

Recently, ‘Seaspiracy’ – https://www.netflix.com/au/title/81014008 – has been produced by the same people who made ‘Cowspiracy’, and it seeks to examine the environmental impact of fishing (primarily, large-scale, industrial fishing). I haven’t had time to view it yet or check its sources, but it has received varied reviews, though mostly of a generally positive nature. Charles Clover, author of the book ‘End of the Line’9 was typical of most when critical of some of the science, but supportive of the way it shone a light into a largely ignored, but critical, aspect of environmental degradation: “The problem of overfishing is immense, global, remote, horrifying and it is really hard to get people to focus on. Until now, Tabrizi’s (the presenter) generation thought banning plastic straws was more important”.

(FAO, 2012. Global Fisheries Harvest [million tonnes] 1950-2010. FishStat Database, July)

Closer to home, a first-class documentary examining the issue of seafood consumption was Matthew Evans’ ‘What’s the Catch’, a four-part series that screened on Australia’s SBS in 2014 – https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/343710275808. SBS previewed it thus: “This provocative documentary series highlights the complex and sometimes shocking truth about Australia’s seafood. Matthew’s journey takes him from the industrial salmon farms in Tasmania, to the catastrophic trawling of Asian seas to feed Aussie’s love of cheap prawns; from the depths of Australia’s threatened Great Barrier Reef, to the lucrative ranching of critically endangered species in South Australia”. (For those outside Australia, Matthew is an ex-chef and food critic who has produced several successful TV series called ‘Gourmet Farmer’ about his food journey from Sydney to a small farm in Tasmania where he raises pigs, amongst other things).

‘What’s the Catch’ is clear-headed, fair-minded and inclusive, but strong, and should have received far more notice than it did. It leaves you with much doubt as to the sources, sustainability and practices of the modern-day fishing/seafood industry, and, just as with ‘Cowspiracy’, urges active thought, awareness and vigilance in our consumptive practices.

With this in mind, if we are to continue seafood consumption (ignoring for the moment those in the world for which it is a vital source of protein and is obtained mostly in small quantities and via more traditional means), then how to do this? A number of organisations around the world have compiled ‘sustainability guides’ to seafood consumption, and although several were trenchantly criticised in ‘Seaspiracy’, there is a number that still provide good advice.

One such in my part of the world is the GoodFish guide, an independent initiative of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. This is a very clear and clever site – GoodFish – Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide – which lists and locates restaurants that commit to providing sustainably-managed seafood only, as well as commonly caught species in Australian waters, and advises:

  • ‘Say No’, or
  • ‘Eat Less’, or
  • ‘Better Choice’;

and if categorised in the first two instances, lists better alternatives. The species can be filtered, also, via the above, or:

  • ‘Under Review’, or
  • ‘Location,’ or
  • ‘Capture Method,’ or
  • ‘Cooking Method’

I tested the site by checking Blue Grenadier in Victoria which I occasionally eat from my local Fish-and-Chip Shop. The Guide tells me:

  • Blue grenadier are caught using trawls in a Commonwealth managed fishery in Australia. Fisheries scientists have assessed that the stock caught in Australia is healthy.
  • Some of the area of seabed covered by the fishery has been mapped, and trawling grounds overlap with high-risk habitats, including areas of sensitive corals and sponges.
  • Historical high impacts on fragile marine habitats have been addressed through the closure of some trawling areas.
  • The fishery catches some threatened species such as Australian fur seals, shortfin mako sharks and seabirds, although industry has been proactive in trying to reduce mortalities of these vulnerable species.
  • All trawl vessels now must have seabird management plans in place to reduce seabird deaths, although the effectiveness of new measures will become clear in coming years.
  • The fishery discards up to half of its catch. The ecological impacts of this discarding have not been fully quantified.”

And if caught from New Zealand waters it says ‘No’ to wild-caught, and has similar detailed text on fishing methods and fishery status. It then goes on to list alternatives, like…

It seems that my choice of treat is not a particularly good one, and if from NZ waters, I need to switch to Dusky Flathead, or similar.

Hopefully, similar, very useful, fish and seafood guides are available in your region.

In summary, T10 can only touch the surface of such an immense and controversial topic as ‘food consumption’, but nonetheless, there appear to be several clear directions our food consumption needs to go in if we are to reduce our Footprint; namely, to:

  • Make our diet as plant-based as possible
  • Make our diet as unprocessed as possible
  • Source our diet as locally as possible
  • Make our limited meat and seafood consumption as sustainable as possible.

(Ways to reduce the impacts of our food choices are explored further in Section 3.6).


1 WWF. 2006. Living Planet Report 2006. WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

2 Food and Agriculture Organisation. 2012. Water Footprint of Food. Rome, Italy.

3 Andersen, K., Kuhn, K. 2014. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.

4 Note: reductions in land area for vegan vs vegetarian vs omnivore diets can be only very generally translated to mean reduced environmental impact. For instance, where I live in Western Victoria, low-intensity grazing leaves a number of key biodiversity assets intact (e.g. Red Gums, wetlands, rocky rises), but high-intensity grazing and cropping eliminates them. Despite the vagaries of land-management practice, the general premise holds true.

5 Kingsolver, B. 2012. Flight Behaviour. Harper Collins, New York, USA.

6 Kingsolver, B. 2018. Unsheltered. Harper Collins, New York, USA.

7 Kingsolver, B. 2007. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Harper Collins, New York, USA.

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