The way we eat has a major impact on the environment

This blog is by Davina Mann, PhD candidate, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University. Her research focuses on sustainable food behaviours and eating patterns and she was asked to share her research.

We all know that the current Australian diet is not healthy. What is not so obvious is the environmental impact caused by our current way of eating. Overall, the food system accounts for approximately a quarter of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions; is the largest cause of deforestation; responsible for one-fifth of all energy use, and covers 30% of all ice-freeland. Some experts suggest that changing our current way of eating could have the largest impact on reducing the amount of pressure we personally place on the environment. The good news is that changing eating patterns to those that are better for the environment would also have benefits to population health. Two birds, one stone.

If were you surprised by the extensive environmental impact of the food system listed above, you are not alone. Most Australian everyday consumers also tend to underestimate the environmental impact of the food system. During in-depth interviews with 24 male and female Australians, our research found that most participants were not aware of the environmental impact of the food system. Additionally, most people had not come across information about an environmentally sustainable eating pattern previously and displayed limited knowledge about what this way of eating would consist of. This is not surprising given the current lack of information about the topic available within Australia. For instance, the Australian Dietary Guidelines fails to provide recommendations on how to eat sustainably. In fact, in the latest 2013 published guidelines, environmental sustainability was relegated to an appendix.

What food behaviours have the greatest impact on the environment?

Sometimes the food products or behaviours that have the largest impact on the environment are not obvious. For example, although food packaging does have an environmental impact, particularly if not disposed of correctly, it can help prolong the shelf life of food, help to keep it safe to consume, and assists in reducing associated food waste. It is important to take into consideration the transport method (with air-transported foods having the greatest impact), growing conditions, and resources required or produced when evaluating the environmental impact of a food item.

Given the complexity of calculating the exact environmental impact of specific food items or products, no wonder consumers across the globe are confused. Consistently consumers’ underestimate the environmental impact of consuming meat and dairy (in particular beef) and overestimate the food behaviours that have the most visible impact such as the transport distance and packaging of a food item.

So how can we change eating behaviours to those are healthy and sustainable?

Changing food behaviours to those that are healthy and sustainable will be no easy task. The environmental impact is a lower priority than other attributes such as health, taste and price as an influence on consumers’ food choice. Fortunately, it appears that Australians are concerned about this topic and are interested in gaining further knowledge. Information dissemination and knowledge awareness strategies need to play a part in helping to change food behaviours to those that are more sustainable. At the same time, information provision is just one of a range of intervention strategies needed. A whole systems approach is necessary. Taking action now is vital to help ensure that we have a healthy food system for now and in the future, to help promote overall good health, and maintain food security.

What you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your diet

  • Spread the word. Engage in a conversation with friends and family.
  • Eat a mostly plant-based eating pattern. Limit your meat and dairy intake (particularly beef) by reducing how frequently or how much you eat of these items.
  • Don’t overconsume. Only eat as much as you need to maintain weight.
  • Buy foods produced within the season.
  • Try to avoid buying air-imported food products.
  • If buying seafood, make sure it is from a sustainable source. Look out for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo.
  • Avoid the consumption of processed and packaged food.
  • Advocate for sustainability to be incorporated into the next Australian Dietary Guidelines.

If you want further information about a sustainable diet, see the EAT-LANCET Commission on Food, Planet, Health report

The full version of this manscript is available as: Mann D, Thornton L, Crawford D, Ball K. Australian consumers’ views towards an environmentally sustainable eating pattern. Public health nutrition. 2018 Oct;21(14):2714-22.

Click here for more information about Deakin IPAN’s research into physical activity and nutrition or follow us on Twitter @DeakinIPAN


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