Diaries of a Plant Powered Dietitian

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Eating for the Environment

Although scientists argue over the causes for which the earth is warming, there is no question that our planet is heating up. According to climate change experts at NOAA and NASA, 2017 was the third hottest year on record, and our hottest years in human history have all occurred within the past decade. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found with 95% certainty that humans are responsible global warming, atmospheric carbon dioxide is at an unprecedented level, sea levels are rising at a faster rate than they ever have, and over the past 20 years glaciers have receded in most parts of the world. We are going to be in serious trouble, perhaps in our lifetime, if humans do not start to take action against global climate change.

There’s no doubt that plant-based diets offer a plethora of health benefits, but did you also know that noshing on plant proteins and veggies is more environmentally friendly? According to the Environmental Working Group Meat Eater’s Guide, eating just one less meat and cheese dish per week would be as beneficial as having 7.6 million fewer cars on the road for 1 year (see here: www.ewg.org.meateatersguide). Although I have never really enjoyed the taste of meat (gasp!), I indulged occasionally growing up, and I’ll admit that I have a penchant for fresh seafood. However,  eating primarily plant-based is now a way of life for me and I hope that others will feel empowered to do their small part in caring for our planet, even if it’s adopting something as simple as meatless Mondays. You do not have to be a full blown vegan or vegetarian to make a difference. In fact, even “flexitarian” diets (eating meat occasionally) can have a powerful impact. 

So, why does what we eat have such a huge impact on the environment?

For starters, agriculture accounts for about 30% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the World Resources Institute Database. Our “food print” accounts for the land, water, and other resources required to grow food, process and transport that food, and eventually cook it and eat it. According to the Environmental Working Group, lamb, beef, cheese, and pork are the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases (in that order).  

Of the agricultural sector, livestock has the greatest impact, taking up a whopping 30% of the ice-free landmass on the planet and utilizing over 8% of global water use, which is used mostly to irrigate feed crops that never even make it to people’s mouths and require massive amounts of land area and fertilizers. Fresh water resources are dwindling, and it’s estimated that over 60% of the world’s population is expected to reside in water stressed areas by 2025 (FAO. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, 2006). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector accounts for 18% of all GHG emissions, 9% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, and is a major contributor of methane gas (which has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2) and nitrous oxide, mostly from ruminant manure which can leach into the soil and pollute waterways and the atmosphere. Indeed, the EWG cites eight slaughterhouses in the U.S. that rank among the nation’s top twenty contributors of industrial pollutants including nitrogen, phosphorous, and ammonia. (EWG Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change & Health). When you cut into a steak, you’re probably not thinking that you may be polluting the ocean. However, manure, fertilizer, and other waste run off from factory farming has far reaching consequences, from greater GHG emissions, to antibiotic resistance, to acidification of the ocean which can cause harmful algae blooms leading to “dead zones”, degradation of coral reefs, and more.

If you absolutely can’t give up your red meat, opt for grass-fed meats. Animals that were raised on sustainably managed pastureland improves carbon sequestration in the soil, preserves biodiversity, and prevents soil erosion and water pollution. Furthermore, grass-fed meats are higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, and are leaner than their conventional counterparts. Furthermore, typically the animals lived in a more humane environment (but this isn’t always the case). I always say that the best way to know where your food came from is the visit the farm itself, but since this isn’t practical for many people, do your research and opt to purchase meats from farms that use sustainable practices. 

One of the big draws in my transition to plant-based eating is the sustainability of these diets.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Biodiversity International define sustainable diets as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security, as well as to a healthy life for present and future generations. They contribute to the protection and respect of biodiversity and ecosystems, are culturally acceptable, economically fair and affordable, adequate, safe and healthy nutritionally, and simultaneously optimize natural and human resources.”  (FAO, International Scientific Symposium on Biodiversity & Sustainable Diets, Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity, Nov 2010. Access here).

The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, a research organization that measures the global impact of different diets, has concluded that the more environmentally friendly diets are those that are more nutritious as well, and ones that dietitians are often already recommending. For example, the Mediterranean diet, which forms the basis of the double pyramid, has been recommended by healthcare professionals since the middle of the 20th century. It is rich in plant foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, and olive oil. Fish, white meat, and dairy are enjoyed in moderation, while red meats and sweets are limited. 

The double pyramid shows the classic food pyramid alongside an inverted environmental pyramid to measure the ecological footprint of foods. You’ll see that for the most part, the healthier plant-based foods are also more environmentally friendly:

Source: BCFN  Double Pyramid

Source: BCFN Double Pyramid

Furthermore, the Mediterranean diet goes beyond just being healthy – it carries deep-rooted traditions that are inherently environmentally conscious such as focusing on seasonal, local foods and respect of the land they were grown on, as well as social interaction through the sharing of meals, and promotion of biodiversity through various food preparation techniques (for more information on the Mediterranean diet, check out www.unesco.org or www.oldwayspt.org).

Waste Not, Want Not

Arguably as important as the type of food we eat, is the volume of food we now consume. Humans in developed countries are consuming far more calories than they used to. By 2050, it’s estimated that the average human diet will consist of 15% more calories than in 2009, resulting in increased global GHG emissions from food productions by 86%. (Tilman, D., Clark, M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature. 2014). According to the World Health Organization, if we were to adjust our food intake to 2,100 calories per day and consume less than 10% of our total daily intake from meat, it would be possible to save around 15 gigatons of carbon emissions (the amount which accounted for one third of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2011). To put that in perspective, Americans are currently consuming about 2,800-3,200 calories/day. 

Additionally, the amount of food we waste is a significant contributor to climate change. Getting food from the farm to our plates comprises 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50% of U.S. land and 80% percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Unfortunately, nearly 40% of food in America ends up in a landfill (Gunders, D., Bloom, J. Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. NRDC. 2nd ed. Aug 2017. Access here). Uneaten food that just sits in plastic bags to rot instead of being returned to the soil releases methane gas, a powerful GHG, and contributes to wasted resources. The FAO estimated in 2011 that approximately one third of all food produced for human consumption worldwide is lost or wasted (FAO, Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes, and prevention. Access here). I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a huge waste of resources for something that is completely unnecessary and preventable!

Here are some Tips for reducing your food print:

  • Don’t waste food! Take only what you will eat 
  • Compost leftovers or old food
  • Eat less
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Eat one less meat dish per week
  • Make the bulk of your meats “white meat” like turkey or chicken, rather than beef or pork
  • Use less cheese in your cooking 
  • Opt for sustainably sourced seafood 
  • Support local farmers and buy organic when you can
  • Opt for lower food print proteins:
    • Eggs
    • Tofu
    • Nuts
    • Legumes (like peas, beans, and lentils)
    • Whole grains (like quinoa, barley, oats, or brown rice
  • Opt for certified humane animal products 
  • Recycle!

Still skeptical? Check out these resources on the food system and its environmental impacts:

Currently, mankind would need 1.3 planet Earths to sustain its consumption and absorb its waste (meaning the Earth would need approximately one year and four months to regenerate the resources consumed by man in a year and absorb the waste produced). (Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food. Executive Summary. Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition. Access here)

Who do we want to feed?

Source:  BCFN, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change

Source:  BCFN, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change

Natalie Colla