A Dietary Shift Towards Healthy Choices Is Also Environmentally Friendly

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Disclaimer: This article solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

The food industry has a large and increasingly negative impact on the environment. In a study of PNAS in 2017, three main indicators have been chosen to assess the environmental impact of food production: global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), eutrophication, and land use globally. Food production accounts for up to almost 30% of GHGs. Eutrophication is the phenomenon usually caused by the discharge of animal waste (dung) and plant fertiliser into the water, which can result in toxic algae blooming and lack of oxygen in the water. Finally, according to FAO statistics, crops take up  around 38% of the world’s ice-free land.

Other environmental threats linked to the food system are endangerment to biodiversity and an increase of soil degradation. The growth of the global population and a decrease in malnutrition globally are also drivers of the increased environmental burdens that the food industry is responsible for. On top of this, recent trends show increasing demand for foods with high environmental impacts, such as animal products.

A sustainability booster in the food industry could come from the demand-side; In fact,  individual dietary choices, in terms of both food choices and quantities consumed, could reduce the environmental impact of this sector. There is considerable new research that links healthy dietary choices to environmentally friendly ones  However this narrative has not been convened to the public enough The PNAS study shows a clear link, especially  in high-income nations like the UK, between the nationally recommended diets (NRDs), which focus on nutrition, and environmental benefits. Put simply, a dietary shift towards healthier choices is also a shift towards more sustainable environmentally choices:  it is a win-win!

The national recommended diet in the UK

A few nations, notably the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and China, have acknowledged that their dietary guidelines would contribute to a healthier planet, but this message is rarely communicated to citizens. The PNAS study shows that compared with average diets, NRDs in richer nations are associated with reductions in GHG, eutrophication, and land use. The reduced environmental impact in these richer countries is driven by reductions in calories (almost 54% of effect). Meanwhile, the increased environmental impacts of NRDs in low- and middle-income nations are associated with increased intake in animal products.

The Eatwell guide from the National Health Service (NHS) is the national nutrition recommendation in the UK. It divides the nutrients into five food groups and defines how much people should eat of each group per day. In the food group of proteins, it states: “Pulses, such as beans, peas, and lentils, are good alternatives to meat because they’re lower in fat and higher in fibre and protein.” However, there is no mention that the healthiest choice is also the most environmentally friendly, a fact that might encourage even more consumers to have a dietary shift in their lives.

The environmental impact of our diet

A few obvious  problems come to mind thinking about the environmental impact of food: the energy costs of transportation, crops’ growth and animal keeping. There are changes in our diet habits that could benefit our nutrition and our planet simultaneously,  such as eating  seasonal vegetables and fruits, reducing the intake of “food that eats food”, and keeping an eye on food-score systems when buying groceries.

Choosing local seasonal food

Some foods have a higher nutritional value when they are in season. For example, oranges are richer in Vitamin C at the peak of their season. However, when choosing to eat locally sourced seasonal food it is important to consider if there is enough diversity in the nutrients available. For instance, the UK lacks nutritional diversity in locally seasonal food, and there is a risk of not eating a well-balanced diet.

By prioritising fruits and vegetables in our diets,we can minimise our carbon footprint, because emissions connected with growing crops are lower than those involved with producing meat. Local seasonal food generates much fewer emissions than outsourcing. However, processing and transportation account for a small amount of the emissions related to food production (transport accounting for 10% on average), making it far more crucial to think about what you eat, rather than where it comes from. When attempting to lower our foods’ carbon footprints, several sorts of considerations may be made. It’s possible that crops grown abroad and transported to the UK have fewer GHG emissions than those grown in greenhouses in the UK.

The “food that eat food”

Animal products logically require the upkeep of the animals. This  includes food, infrastructure, and other resources. This is what I mean by “food that eats food”, a part of   the food industry which produces a considerable energy loss. More than a third of the world’s crops are dedicated to feeding animals. For example, in Europe, 62% of cereal crops are produced to feed animals and only 23% directly feed people. Imagine turning all those crops into food for humans. It would have huge consequences on human populations, alleviating poverty and maybe even preventing famine. Arguably,  there would be an increase of more than a third of food available to the world population. In addition,  slowing down the crops’ production would help biodiversity and ecosystems.

Dietary guidelines may be an ideal way to tackle both human and environmental health.  You can win both ways: a healthier diet for individuals which is also healthier for the planet. However, only a  few guidelines include the environmental aspects of a healthier diet. Nevertheless, it is a major reason to consider shifting your diet.

By Arianna Tanganelli,

Postgraduate student in MSc European Politics and Policy, specialised in Foreign Affairs and International Relations. Main areas: human rights, democracy and EU-China relations.

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