Loving Your Body and the Environment

August 7, 2018 in Food Economics, Foodland Chronicles by Joyce Bunderson

If like me, you’re interested in protecting our environment, you may be interested in some research done by Joseph Poore a pre-doctoral student at the University of Oxford and Thomas Nemecek PhD of the Swiss agricultural research institute, Agroscope. The researchers collected a huge amount of data regarding the wide differences in environmental impacts – from greenhouse gas emissions to water used. Their data include results between producers of the same product; showing what kind of impact the same product with different kinds of production have on the environmental. You can read their published work at Science.

The differences in gases produced are great, even in the animal protein group; for example, 100 grams of protein from beef leads to the release of 50 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions; 100 grams of protein from cheese releases 11 kilograms in production; from poultry 5.7 kilograms and from tofu two kilograms. This illustrates the biggest differences; the difference between animal and plants (tofu – peas and nuts are also very low, and far less than eggs). It’s amazing. By far, the biggest differences are between plant foods and animal foods. Part of the problem is that as countries with huge populations become richer, they turn to more animal protein. It’s having a big effect upon our environment.

Poore says that changing how we produce food and what we consume can reduce the environmental burdens of producing food. Certainly this is an enormous project. The researchers want to assist both the public and agriculture in learning methods of production that help to alleviate the burdens of food production upon the environment. In addition, they want to help the public to learn the differences of types of foods and the impact upon the environment because they recognize that the public will ultimately drive what the producers provide.

The bottom line gathered from their research is that diet change delivers greater environmental benefits than purchasing sustainable meat or dairy, for example. Plant-based diets can reduce food’s emission by up to 73%. And, in addition, global agricultural land would also be reduced by about 76%. Poore says, “This would take pressure off the world’s tropical forests and release land back to nature.”

The authors can make these claims because, as mentioned above, their data includes the range, or spread, of environmental impacts for different producers. Beef not only has the highest average impact, but also a huge range, giving off 20 kilgrams (kg) of CO2 per 100 grams of beef. That is for the least impactful production methods – the worst cases give off 105 kg! Peas, legumes, nuts go from 0 impact to maybe 5 kg per 100 grams, and at worst case, fall below the best production cases for eggs, poultry, and cheese, which all fall, even at their worst production cost in CO2, below the best case for beef.

The researchers are working to find ways to slightly change the payoff conditions so it’s better for the producers and consumers to make choices in favor of the environment. Educating the public with labels and financial incentives are among the ideas they’re interested in starting with.

Certainly, we don’t need to wait for their further research. We can start now, by choosing more plants and less animal meat. Of course, we will almost certainly be positively impacting our health in the process. Is that a win-win, or what?