Save the planet (and your health)

15th November 2021 | Eativity editors

Need another reason to cut back on junk food and sugary drinks, apart from an expanding waistline? It’s good for the environment. According to a new study from the University of South Australia, reducing our consumption of sweets, pastries, fried foods and processed meat is not just better for our overall health. It can also help to save the planet.

Processed foods are high in energy but low in nutrients. Eating too much of them too often can increase your risk of a whole swathe of health problems. Think obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

To make matters worse, these foods also use more croplands, contribute to water scarcity and leave a larger ecological footprint. Australian households now eat more discretionary and junk foods than recommended by our national dietary guidelines. This contributes to food-related greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts.

Save the planet: eat less meat
Agriculture contributes to around 13% of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Our food footprint

University of South Australia dietitian Sara Forbes led a review examining 20 studies on the environmental impacts of food in Australia and New Zealand. She says the findings highlight the urgent need for more sustainable dietary choices.

A federal government report from 2020 found that Australia emitted an estimated 510 metric tonnes of C02. Food-related emissions account for 14.2 percent of this. The average Australian is producing the equivalent of 19.7 kilograms of C02 each day via their diet.

A 2017 report also found that food waste makes up about six percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. This takes into account water, energy and pesticides used in food production. Food packaging in landfill also releases methane as it decomposes.

Save the planet and your health: eat less junk food
National dietary guidelines need to take the environment into account as well as health.

Core values

Unlike New Zealand, current Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADGs) don’t consider the environmental impacts of food. The researchers say they need to be updated.

The existing ADGs recommend daily serves of “core” foods each day: fruit and vegies, whole grains, lean meats, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy and alternatives.

These core foods are estimated to contribute 67 to 73 percent of Australian food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Meat, grains and dairy contribute the most emissions. Fruit and vegetables are two of the lowest contributors.

Non-core or “discretionary” foods – sugary drinks, alcohol, confectionary and processed meats – account for 27 to 33 percent of food-related emissions. It’s true that this percentage is lower than core food emissions. But the fact that Australians are eating large amounts of energy-rich, nutrient-poor foods is not helping the environment.

Hot dog environmental impacts
Processed meats like hot dogs are among the most environmentally damaging foods.

The real cost of that hot dog

International research has also increased its focus on the combined health and environmental benefits of a nutritious diet. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the same dietary changes that could help reduce the risk of diet-related diseases could also help meet international sustainability goals.

It found foods associated with improved health also had among the lowest environmental impacts. These include whole grains, fruits, vegies, legumes, nuts and olive oil. Foods associated with the largest increases in disease risk – unprocessed and processed red meat – were consistently associated with the largest negative environmental impacts.

Another study published in Nature Food evaluated more than 5800 foods. Researchers ranked them by their overall dietary disease burden and impact on the environment. It found that substituting 10 percent of your daily calorie intake from beef and processed meats for a mix of fruits, vegies, nuts, legumes and seafood could reduce your dietary carbon footprint by a third. It could also give you an extra 48 minutes of healthy life a day.

The researchers also found that eating something like a hot dog could cost you 36 minutes of a healthy life. And producing one kilogram of pig meat requires the equivalent of 7.9 kilograms of C02 and 5990 litres of water. That’s one wasteful wiener.

Save the planet: environmental impacts of food
Want to save the planet? Eat more plants.

Time for change

Worldwide, food consumption and production accounts for one quarter of total global emissions. Agriculture uses half of the world’s habitable land, and livestock takes up more than three quarters of that. This has led to land degradation and a huge loss of biodiversity. Further, two thirds of the world’s fresh water is used for irrigation.

“Discretionary foods have a higher cropland, water scarcity and ecological footprint,” Forbes says. “Meat also emits greenhouse gases. But its water scarcity footprint is lower compared to dairy products, cereals, grains, fruit and vegetables.

“It’s time we acknowledged the environmental impacts of the type and amount of food we eat. We need to consider the planet as well as our health.

“The world’s population is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050. We can’t feed that number of people unless we change the way we eat and produce food.”

Each of us can do our bit to help save the planet. For example, you can choose to support forward-thinking producers like these guys, who are reducing their ecological footprints. We’ve also got this advice on how to eat your way to lower emissions and better health.