As important as we discuss the impact of food on our health is to discuss its environmental impact on the planet. We have known for some centuries now that human beings have been substantially changing their relationship with the environment, throwing pollutants into waters, land and air at all times. This situation has reached an unsustainable point, where the prognosis is not good. Estimates are that the oceans will soon rise in temperature, which has an impact not only on marine life, but also on all ecosystems.
In this context, it is essential that we think of individual actions that can at least reduce the damage caused to nature – and it is in this matter that food has a special action. Looking at the evidence, there is a very interesting article by Rosi and colleagues in which the authors analyzed the environmental impact of some dietary patterns.
They demonstrated that omnivorous diets were the ones that caused the biggest carbon, water and ecological footprint (parameters used to estimate how much the production of each food generates from carbon dioxide emission, how much water is used and what the final environmental impact is , respectively). Ovolactovegetarian and vegan diets, on the other hand, had significantly less impact than the omnivorous.
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These data are very important, as they demonstrate that products of animal origin generate very large losses during their production chain. The explanation for this is what we see when we think of the bigger picture: for livestock, for example, vast pastures are needed (needing to use many hectares of land for proportionally few animals). The water consumption of the animal, the farm’s facilities, the industry that produced feed and everything else is extremely high per head of cattle. The transport of meat is refrigerated, as well as its storage in markets and homes (leading to high consumption of electricity). This is to mention only the most prominent factors.
However, this does not mean that a vegetarian or vegan diet is necessarily superior to an omnivore when considering environmental impact. The authors made an addendum showing that in the vegan diet group, some individuals demonstrated an environmental footprint similar to that observed in the omnivorous diet. This is justified because vegans do not consume anything of animal origin or have used animals in their production chain, but this does not exempt them from consuming ultra-processed products.
There are several ultra-processed foods that are vegan. Corn chips, cakes, sweets, cookies … the list is long. Virtually every ultra-processed product has a high environmental impact, as it required industrial processing. The industry is a major consumer of water and electricity, in addition to producing tailings. Not to mention the use of plastic packaging and other materials that can be disposed of in the environment without any preparation.
Therefore, the final message I want to leave is: to reduce the environmental impact of our food, we should prefer fresh and minimally processed foods, in addition to following a plant-based diet (with little or nothing of animal origin). This is for both health and the planet!