Could our food choices have a positive green impact?

14 February 2022

Making good food choices is necessary both for ourselves and for the planet, says plant scientist Professor Justin Borevitz.

"The first thing to aim for when shopping is that our food is healthy, nutritious and hopefully sustainable, that is with a light touch on the land," he says. 

"But could we go further? What if our food choices had a positive green impact? Could we eat our way out of this?"

Plant genomics expert Prof Borevitz is leading a regional effort to address climate change with land-based approaches that enhance food security and land restoration. 

He and his research team at the Research School of Biology in the College of Science are working on the Landscape Regeneration Toolkit, focusing on understanding how plants perform in changing environments to help inform land management decisions under climate change.

The field of plant genomics is key to better food production, nutrition and human health, but also for biodiversity conservation and aiding adaptation of foundation species that regenerate the environment.

Currently, much of what we eat is contributing to biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change because of how it is grown, according to Prof Borevitz.

"Ultimately, we need to deliver high-quality calories, nutrition and protein to people, and the debate comes down to how best to do that within our finite planet space," he says.

"We need to think about both the direct impact of agriculture and also the indirect, opportunity cost of what would have, or could have, been grown in that space.

"We eat animals without knowing how forest crop-guzzling they generally are. We can't all be eating meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's not healthy or sustainable.

"Food is the demand side; land is the supply side. If we shift our dietary preferences, there's a lot of opportunity to free up and better use land.

"If you want to eat some meat, make sure it's high-quality, and think about where it comes from and how it was raised."

Prof Borevitz says below-ground is the next frontier. Soil should be preserved and enhanced as part of a regenerative farming system. 

"Below ground is kind of this black box, it's hard to observe and currently, most of our agriculture is about what we can take off the land," he says. 

"Carbon sequestration is about what we can put back in, and in the longer term, carbon drawdown into land by plants with agriculture is one of the best ways to clean up the air.

"In too many cases, we've wiped the soil out. Often cultivation not only displaces the living biomass of the plants that were there, but then agriculture itself further releases CO2."

The options for managing the land for long-term environmental benefits rather than short-term economic gains - and the benefits of investing in natural capital pay back, according to Prof Borevitz.

"Rather than give up on agriculture - which is largely framed as a necessary evil (hard-to-abate sector) - we can demand food from farms that repair the soil, agro-ecosystem and biodiversity," he says.

Land management will have to take precedence as part of mitigating the problems caused by climate change, and Prof Borevitz says that when animals are suitably included, they could be part of the solution. 

"We can make use of satellite remote sensing, and using digital collars to be able to provide certification to consumers, who are finally now looking for it and asking for it," he says.

"Australia has generally had a good reputation for high quality agricultural products, but now we need to quantify that at every farm gate."

Prof Borevitz says that if we could use technology to track food back to land, then people could know more precisely where their food has come from and how it was grown. 

"If and when we can provide food footprint information to consumers as shades of brown to green and blue, with quantification via barcode link, then people can make good decisions and share abundance with little waste," he says. 

"So with lots of both renewable energy and regenerative food, we can just maybe eat our way out of this."