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Organic plant-​rich diets are the best for the Planet

pub­lished 18 Feb­ru­ary 2018 | mod­i­fied 18 Feb­ru­ary 2018

A study of more than 34,000 peo­ple is the first to inves­ti­gate the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of both food choices and farm pro­duc­tion systems.

plant based diet examplesThe study is the first to inves­ti­gate the envi­ron­men­tal impact of organic food con­sump­tion using observed diets rather than mod­els.
Image: Shut­ter­stock

A major new study con­firms that a diet high in fruit and veg­eta­bles is bet­ter for the planet than one high in ani­mal prod­ucts. The study also finds that organic food pro­vides sig­nif­i­cant, addi­tional cli­mate ben­e­fits for plant-​based diets, but not for diets with only mod­er­ate con­tri­bu­tion from plant prod­ucts. This study, pub­lished on 9 Feb­ru­ary in open access jour­nal Fron­tiers in Nutri­tion, is the first to inves­ti­gate the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of both dietary pat­terns and farm pro­duc­tion sys­tems. It is also the first to inves­ti­gate the envi­ron­men­tal impact of organic food con­sump­tion using observed diets rather than models.

Many organ­i­sa­tions, includ­ing the UN’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Orga­ni­za­tion, advo­cate the urgent adop­tion of more sus­tain­able diets at a global level. Such diets include reduced con­sump­tion of ani­mal prod­ucts, which have a higher envi­ron­men­tal impact than plant-​based prod­ucts. This is mainly due to the high energy require­ments of live­stock farm­ing as well as the very large con­tri­bu­tion of live­stock to green­house gas emis­sions. Inten­sive live­stock pro­duc­tion is also respon­si­ble for sig­nif­i­cant bio­di­ver­sity loss due to con­ver­sion of nat­ural habi­tats to grass and feed crops.

The method of food pro­duc­tion may also influ­ence sus­tain­able diets. Organic agri­cul­ture is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered more envi­ron­men­tally friendly than other mod­ern pro­duc­tion tech­niques. How­ever, while many stud­ies have inves­ti­gated envi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able diets, these have rarely con­sid­ered both dietary choices and the pro­duc­tion method of the foods consumed.

We wanted to pro­vide a more com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of how dif­fer­ent diets impact the envi­ron­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, it is of con­sid­er­able inter­est to con­sider the impacts of both plant-​based foods and organic foods.

Louise Sec­onda, co-​author, Equipe de Recher­ché en Epidémi­olo­gie Nutri­tion­nelle (EREN), Cen­tre d’Epidémiologie et Sta­tis­tiques Sor­bonne Paris Cité, and Agence de l’Environnement et de la maîtrise de l’Energie, Angers, France.

To do this, researchers obtained infor­ma­tion on food intake and organic food con­sump­tion from more than 34,000 French adults. They used what’s called a ‘proveg­e­tar­ian’ score to deter­mine pref­er­ences for plant-​based or animal-​based food prod­ucts. The researchers also con­ducted pro­duc­tion life cycle envi­ron­men­tal impact assess­ments at the farm level against three envi­ron­men­tal indi­ca­tors: green­house gas emis­sions, cumu­la­tive energy demand and land occupation.

Com­bin­ing con­sump­tion and farm pro­duc­tion data we found that across the board, diet-​related envi­ron­men­tal impacts were reduced with a plant-​based diet — par­tic­u­larly green­house gas emis­sions,” says Louise Sec­onda. Or as the researchers sum­marised in their arti­cle, “A higher proveg­e­tar­ian score was asso­ci­ated with lower envi­ron­men­tal impacts.”

The con­sump­tion of organic food added even more envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits for a plant-​based diet. In con­trast, con­sump­tion of organic food did not add sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits to diets with high con­tri­bu­tion from ani­mal prod­ucts and only mod­er­ate con­tri­bu­tion from plant products.”

How­ever the researchers cau­tion that the envi­ron­men­tal effects of pro­duc­tion sys­tems are not uni­form and can be impacted by cli­mate, soil types and farm management.

We didn’t look at other indi­ca­tors such as pes­ti­cide use, leach­ing and soil qual­ity which are rel­e­vant to the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of pro­duc­tions sys­tems,” says Louise Sec­onda. “There­fore future stud­ies could also con­sider these as well as sup­ply chain and dis­tri­b­u­tion impacts of food production.”

The authors also say it will be impor­tant to con­duct fur­ther stud­ies to con­firm these results and to expand our under­stand­ing of how the entire food pro­duc­tion life­cy­cle impacts sustainability.

(Source: fron­tiers Blog, 15.02.2018)

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