Human food consumption poses an immense burden on the environment, many people adhere to certain diets as a method of lowering their personal impact. For example, one might eat organic, eat local, or eat more plant-based foods. As the research confirms, these choices can have a big influence. Thus, a first step in remediating human environmental burden is to understand the impact of human dietary practices. Likely, it’s not as straightforward as cutting out red meat or eating more plant-based. Rather, we must aim to refine our strategies–heeding the latest environmental research–for best practice with food and climate.
To study the dietary burden of specific food choices, many scientists use the life-cycle assessment (LCA). An internationally standardized procedure, the LCA evaluates a given product, process, or service’s environmental impacts from the generation of resources to its final disposal. Unfortunately, LCA findings can be misleading without context, which results in an audience poised to make conclusions that may or may not be true. In one prominent example, despite sweeping claims from some researchers on the superiority of vegetarian or vegan diets, other researchers find that vegetable food may be more polluting than non-vegetable food.
The disagreement originates from misrepresentation of data, in which case a distinction between food matter and its production and processing provides clarity. Consistently, scholars have concluded that food’s environmental impact is more practice-dependent than matter-dependent. In other words, when agricultural practices are organic and post-production processing is minimal, meat-based diets are inferior to plant-based diets with respect to environmental burden.
It makes sense why people espouse plant-based eating as a means of lessening human environmental burden upon reading such headlines as “pork production emits nine times more greenhouse gasses compared to dry peas.” However, this fact only accounts for the matter of a given product, neglecting production and processing findings that are equally essential pieces of the puzzle. While it’s true that vegetable foods produced under the same pre and post production conditions as animal foods have less environmental burden, such is not always the case when, for example, transportation enters the equation. Processing can add carbon footprints to vegetables that would be higher than those of locally produced meats or dairy. For this reason, many researchers agree that more insight can be gleaned when looking at complete diets and meals rather than single foods.
Understandably, the scholars who go into this line of research share a common love and concern for the environment, core values that lead to a larger conversation on environmental sustainability throughout their literature. In consolidating their findings, researchers recurrently discuss veganism and locavorism as dietary changes that seem to improve the efficiency of peoples’ meals. Respectively, these approaches to eating denote when one abstains from consumption of all animal products, or only consumes food produced only within a 100 mile radius of home. And the research suggests that significant change arises at the overlap of the two eating habits, choosing both vegan and local foods.
A 2017 literature review titled Dietary Strategies to Reduce Environmental Impact: A Critical Review of the Evidence Base concluded, “Taking all of the available evidence, there is little that can be concluded, at this time, about dietary strategies to reduce environmental impact.” This is not to say that scientists have no clue what foods pollute more than others–generally speaking, plant-based diets are better for the earth–but without context on factors such as regional food system differences, global patterns of trade, and regional land management practice, compilations of LCA data are difficult to obtain, interpret, and disseminate judiciously.
The implementation of change requires prompting people to think about the future. Particularly, the presentation of raw data about global warming in conjunction with some level of fear might be an effective tactic that urges the public to change their behaviors. As such, education has the power to encourage a worldwide shift in eating habits. Forward-thinking collaboration between research and the public eye could change the trajectory of human food consumption.
For many reasons, reducing meat consumption and opting for plant-based foods can be a powerful way to affect environmental change with diet. However, doing so does not universally lower one’s carbon footprint, a phenomenon so powerfully showcased in the transportation and post-processing phases of LCAs.
In order to communicate the most accurate, unbiased conclusions to the public, the global narrative on plant-based eating and climate change demands more nuanced interpretation, which will garner legitimacy and portray a more holistic story.