A new study has found that your diet affects exactly the planet


People who eat eco-friendly may know that almonds are a water-intensive crop, that fish farms pollute the water or that beef consumption leads to deforestation. But the study released Monday goes much broader and deeper, providing new evidence for balancing the overall environmental outcomes of crops, livestock and seafood.

The researchers collected data on food production and its effects on Earth, including disturbances in wildlife habitats, water use and pollution, and contributions to global warming. Their findings reveal which types of food production have the greatest consequences and where.

The study published in Nature Sustainability — which examined nearly 99 percent of total food production on land and sea as reported to the United Nations in 2017 — offers a new way to assess what we eat and how to feed the world, according to her. Lead author, Ben Halpern, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“We need to think about the multiple ways food affects the environment,” said Halpern, who directs the National Center for Environmental Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, San Francisco. “Our findings show how you can use more information about these multiple stressors and the global scope of the consequences of our food production to influence your individual choice.”

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The researchers excluded food produced in home gardens and by hunters, as well as non-food crops such as coffee, tea and tobacco. But they assessed the impacts including the displacement of farmland ecosystems and the destruction of seabed habitats with fishing gear; water used by crops and livestock; contamination of waterways with nutrients from runoff contaminated with concentrated fertilizers and fecal matter; and greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural machinery and boat engines, the production of fertilizers and pesticides, and livestock bloats and manure.

Pigs and cattle rank first in terms of environmental damage

Unsurprisingly, pork and livestock are far ahead of any other products, with livestock having a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions and pigs on water quality. But pork may have greater environmental costs than beef when it is taken into account that a lot of pig waste ends up polluting waterways.

Nutrient pollution from animal waste and fertilizer causes algal blooms in waterways, which can eventually create “dead zones” of water with little or no dissolved oxygen.

The researchers also included the environmental impact of any other plant or animal used to produce feed for livestock and fish, increasing the overall harm associated with these types of foods.

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Seafood affects the land, not just the ocean

The study raises questions about the sustainability of seafood, and finds that it has a significant impact on shore as well as off our coast. While aquatic systems produce 1.1 percent of the world’s food, they account for 9.9 percent of the global ecological footprint of the food system.

A class of fish that includes cod, flounder, and halibut has had more than four times the environmental impact of other fish because the trawl nets they draw to harvest them destroy habitats along the sea floor. The study indicated that the environmental stress was three times that associated with raising sheep for meat, even though this type of hunting produces four times more food than raising sheep.

One researcher not involved in the study said her approach provides a “comprehensive” analysis that goes well beyond other work to identify environmental stresses, with careful consideration of either land or marine impacts, but not both.

said Matthew Hayek, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University.

The amplifying effect of rice, wheat and other crops

Rice and wheat are rated at the same level of environmental impacts as animal products including cow’s milk and chicken meat largely because growing the grains requires a lot of water. But also, it is cultivated in such huge quantities all over the world that its disturbances to the natural habitat and environment are amplified.

The study found that crops used to make cooking oils, including palm and canola, are other examples of plant food products whose effects rival those of some animal products because they are widely grown and used.

On the other hand, a crop like papaya is particularly resource-intensive, but is grown on a relatively smaller scale so that its impact is low, Halpern said.

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Five countries account for half of the world’s food footprint

Five countries account for nearly half of all diet impacts: India, China, the United States, Brazil and Pakistan.

The researchers found that not only was this damage highly concentrated in a handful of countries, but some countries were found to have greater environmental impacts than others for producing the same types of food.

For example, beef production in Brazil has a greater environmental impact than is attributed to the cattle industry in the United States, even though Brazil produces 10 percent less meat than the United States.

Halpern said he hopes the study will lead more people and decision makers to think of ways to reduce the environmental consequences of food choices and regulation. Although the analysis takes into account different types of environmental stresses equally, future use of data and research methods could carry more weight depending on the environmental challenges faced, he said.

“There are many possible solutions to reduce the ecological footprint of food production,” Halpern said. “We’ve created a huge list of options for how to do this.”

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