The Environmental Impacts of Food and Diet

The environment is essential to our lives, providing us with the resources we need to survive. However, human activities have significantly impacted the environment, leading to various issues such as climate change, deforestation, and pollution. How we produce, consume, and dispose of goods and services, including food, is a significant contributor to these environmental problems.

The relationship between food and the environment

The relationship between food and the environment is complex and multifaceted. Food systems, which include food production, processing, packaging, transportation, and disposal, are responsible for a whopping one-third of anthropocentric greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions contribute to climate change, which means food and climate change are also irrevocably linked. 

Food production

The way we produce food has a significant impact on the environment. For example, intensive livestock farming, such as cows and pigs, generates large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Additionally, the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers in the production of some crops can cause soil and water pollution, and harm beneficial insects and wildlife.

Food disposal

When food waste ends up in landfills, it generates methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. Additionally, when food scraps and waste are not properly disposed of, they can attract pests, and contribute to air and water pollution.

Food consumption

The way we consume food can also have an impact on the environment. For instance, the transportation of food over long distances, as well as the packaging and preservation of food products, all require energy and resources and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Diets high in meat and dairy products are typically more resource-intensive and have a larger environmental footprint than plant-based diets. This is because the production of meat and dairy requires more land, water, and energy than the production of plant-based foods.

Reducing the pressure on the environment

From all the above, we’ve seen that what we consume and how we consume it has enormous sway on significant environmental processes. It only makes sense then that by consciously regulating what we eat and how, we can reduce the pressure on the environment and, at the very least, reduce our contributions to climate change.

Here are some diet-based ways we can achieve that:

Switching to plant-based diets

According to Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, switching to a plant-based diet has a high potential for lowering carbon footprints, combating climate change, and enhancing human health. Plant-based diets rely on locally-sourced and seasonal produce, which can have a lower environmental impact. Eating a diet primarily based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can reduce the consumption of meat, dairy, and processed food, reducing the environmental impact of food production.

Consuming seasonal foods

Fruits and vegetables are typically cultivated and harvested throughout the year in various places and during different seasons. Eating seasonal foods reduces the need for transportation and preservation of food products. Compared to fruit and vegetables that are imported or stored, those sourced locally consume less energy as they don’t need artificial heating or lighting, refrigeration, and storage. It also involves fewer losses during storage, which typically contribute to creating fewer GHG emissions.

Supporting organic farming

Organic farming is a form of agriculture that uses natural methods to enhance crop growth and reduce synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms. This practice is better for the environment in many ways:

  • It is designed to promote biodiversity, which can help to protect ecosystems and conserve natural resources. 
  • It can help to attract beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife, which can help control pests and improve the ecosystem’s health.
  • It upholds crop rotation and cover cropping methods, which help sequester soil carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By supporting organic farmers and reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products, we can help to promote sustainable farming practices and protect the environment.

Reducing food waste

Food waste represents a waste of resources such as water, energy, and land, which ends up being used to produce food that, in the end, is never consumed. When this waste ends up in landfills, it generates methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Food waste also hurts biodiversity, attracting pests and wildlife that can harm natural ecosystems. Therefore, reducing food waste is essential for creating a more sustainable food system and protecting the environment. 

What does the ideal diet look like?

According to a study by the World Wildlife Fund, the average diet in the United States generates about three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a vegetarian diet and nearly six times more than a vegan diet. So, what would that look like if we were to design a diet ideal for both the planet and people?

The EAT (EAT Forum) and the Lancet medical journal developed a fundamental, whole-foods-based healthful diet called the EAT–Lancet diet. This ‘planetary health’ diet is meant to be nutritious and sustainable and could save the lives of about 11 million people every year. 

The EAT-Lancet diet is a plant-based diet focused on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. It recommends a drastic reduction in the consumption of animal products, such as meat and dairy, and instead, encourages the consumption of plant-based protein sources. It also recommends a moderate fish and seafood intake, but no more than 14 grams per day.

The diet also focuses on reducing food waste and promotes the consumption of locally-sourced and seasonal foods. Additionally, it recommends reducing the intake of processed foods, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. Instead, it encourages the consumption of healthy fats, such as those found in nuts, seeds, and avocados.

According to several scientists, the EAT-Lancet diet is highly recommended for affluent countries, where the typical individual consumes 2.6 times as much meat as their counterparts in low-income countries and whose eating patterns are unsustainable.

Can it be implemented?

While it is intended to be a flexible and adaptable dietary pattern that can be adapted to different cultures and dietary preferences, it has its fair share of criticism.

The main drawback is that the EAT-Lancet diet is not realistic or feasible for many people, especially those living in developing countries, where access to various fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may be limited.

Critics also add that the diet may not be affordable for at least 1.6 billion people from low-income individuals and vulnerable communities who may need it the most. And finally, the diet’s recommendation to drastically reduce meat and dairy consumption may not be feasible for farmers and may lead to job losses in the livestock industry.

The final word

No matter how we go about it—by reducing meat consumption, eating a plant-based diet, supporting local and organic farming, and reducing food waste—changing what we consume and how we produce what we consume can go a long way in protecting and restoring the natural environment.