The Western diet, which tends to be rich in highly processed foods, animal foods and fast foods, has a negative impact on our planet. The industrialization of our food supply has resulted in much larger scale farms that produce higher greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) and a loss of biodiversity in our ecosystem. The farm stage of food production makes up 61 percent of food’s GHGE’s, uses 43 percent of the worlds ice and desert-free land, and more than two-thirds of its fresh water.
Agriculture causes soil degradation. Products such as inorganic fertilizers and pesticides lead to severe impacts on soil ecology. These soil microbial communities are essential for sustaining life on the planet. They provide nutrients to assist in plant growth and they increase resistance to crop stresses. Additionally, healthy soils play a key role in the carbon cycle by soaking up carbon from dead plant matter. Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and this is passed to the ground when dead roots and leaves decompose. The conversion of natural ecosystems to agriculture releases that carbon into the atmosphere causing damage to the ozone layer. Also known as the earth’s sunscreen, it protects all living things (humans, marine life, plant life) from too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Conversely, having a diverse variety of plants, crops and trees promotes CO2 absorption, which decreases the damaging effects on the ozone layer.
Livestock is responsible for large amount of GHGEs such as methane and nitrous oxide, which have even greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Livestock also causes deforestation (cutting down oxygen producing trees replaced with cattle feed crops and grazing land), increased water use and water pollution.
Another culprit is food waste. Wasted food products are mostly transported to landfills, where 30-40 percent of the US food supply is tossed. Wasted food accounts for 25 percent of all our fresh water use, enough energy to power the country for more than a week and enough land to feed the world’s hungry population.
Food distribution also contributes to GHGE’s. From the farm, food travels by air, water, and land to be manufactured, prepared and packaged before it’s delivered for storage and then distributed to retailers. Following a Mediterranean diet can reduce the impact. Spanish researchers found converting from a Western diet to a Mediterranean eating style may reduce GHGEs by 72 percent, land use by 58 percent, energy consumption by 52 percent, and water consumption by 33 percent.
Small changes add up:
- Buy local.
- If you consume red meat, aim to consume less of it and try to replace it with poultry or seafood.
- Eat a plant-based diet with a variety of whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Many plant-based foods such as beans and whole grains are shelf stable, convenient, and economical.
- Plant your own vegetable garden.
- Plan at least one night per week to try a new vegetarian recipe.
Sources: USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) Total and Per Capita Value of Food Loss in the United State (2012); USDA ERS, The Value of Retail- and Consumer-Level Fruit and Vegetable Losses in the United States (2011); Venkat, The Climate Change and Economic Impacts of Food Waste in the United States (2012): Hall et al, The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impacts (2009)
Barbara Broggelwirth, MS, RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals.