The Environmental Footprint of Food

Public health and environmental health are palpably linked—especially in terms of food production and consumption.

UCLA Department of Environmental Health Sciences Chair, IoES Professor (and licensed pediatrician) Dr. Richard Jackson stated, “There are no healthy people in unhealthy environments.  Our bodies, and especially those of children, are remarkable absorbers and biocentrators of many chemicals in the environment, especially the ones that dissolve in fat.  And children, because their ‘occupation’ is to explore—smell, taste, and touch—everything around them, are the most heavily exposed of us all.” 

Dr. Jackson continued, “We cannot have healthy people without healthy and diverse food.  American food systems have processed food down to molecules, and saturated it with sugar, fat, and salt, to the point that few Americans meet dietary guidelines for consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, to the point that we likely have birthed the first generation to live less long than their parents.”

The University of California system recently promoted “Food Day”—designated as October 24, 2011. Organized by the nonprofit watchdog group, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the initiative aimed to protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms, supporting sustainable farms, and limiting subsidies to big agribusiness—along with a number of other goals.

What we eat as individuals, and as a society, impacts our planet. Actively and consistently making smart, sustainable choices can have a positive chain reaction on the environment.

Here, two different nutrition plans are gauged on their ability to be good for you and green.

Vegetarian & Vegan
This diet is the long-held standard as the most ecofriendly option. Countless researchers have documented how cows and sheep release methane—a potent greenhouse gas. There is also an energy efficiency component—the power needed to produce, store, and transport meat results in high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. A plant-based diet is also considered greener because livestock are sometimes treated inhumanely and given unnatural food sources and hormone injections.  Some studies demonstrate that a non-vegetarian diet requires more water, more energy, and more fertilizer and pesticides. UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Chair and IoES Professor (and food enthusiast) Dan Blumstein authors a blog on sustainability and food—“Eating Our Way to Civility.” Check it out here.  Professor Blumstein concurs with the “less meat equals more green” equation.

Blumstein stated, "All organisms need energy to live.  Plants grow from energy that comes from the sun.  Herbivores grow by eating the energy in plants.  Carnivores grow by eating (mostly) herbivores.  At each stage in this process, a considerable amount of energy is lost.  This is because animals don't convert all of their energy into tissue; they must breathe and move and produce young.  Thus, eating plants, as opposed to eating animals, is much more energy efficient.”

He continued, “This means that, for the same amount of initial energy, more people can be supported by eating a diet of plants than by eating a diet of animals.  The real rub comes from eating animal products, like cheese.  Because cheese is produced by animals, it's an equally inefficient source of energy as the cow or goat that it came from."

In terms of health benefits, research shows vegetarian and vegan eaters have lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure, and consequently less incidence of coronary heart disease, hypertension, obesity, and some forms of cancer—plus a lower overall risk of early mortality. 

Paleolithic Diet
Increasing in popularity, due to its adoption and approval by the athletic and academic set, is the Paleolithic (Paleo) Diet. The principles of the Paleo Diet are that humans should mimic the eating pattern and lifestyle of our ancestors and work with our genetics. Meals are built from the following ingredients that existed at the time of our evolution: lean proteins, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil. This diet excludes grains, legumes, dairy, and refined sugar.

salmon dinner

In August 2011, UCLA played host to the inaugural Ancestral Health Symposium. Organized by the Ancestral Health Society, the conference was created to foster collaboration among scientists, healthcare professionals, and laypersons who study and communicate about health from an evolutionary perspective to develop solutions to modern health challenges. University of North Carolina at Charlotte Professor Matt Metzgar delivered a presentation on the sustainability of the Paleo diet. A faculty member in economics, his work centers on developing a Sustainable Food Index.  The principles of sustainable food production and consumption are: indigenous foods, wild foods, organic foods, in-season foods, local foods, whole foods, fresh foods, properly nourished foods, genetically compatible foods, and foods with recyclable packaging. 

Consuming food that is indigenous to a geographical area, wild instead of farmed, in-season, and produced locally and free of pesticides means less harm to the environment and human beings and reduced fossil fuel usage for transportation.  Eating fresh, “one-ingredient” foods that are not processed is also mutually advantageous. Choosing meat and produce nourished in a sustainable way is eco-friendly and healthy too.  Finally, selecting food that is consistent with human ancestral heritage and packaged environmentally responsibly further demonstrates how the Paleo diet is good for Earth and its inhabitants.

This hunter-gatherer plan has its own slew of benefits. Proponents of the diet cite the absence of harmful, processed ingredients and rich omega-3 content. The diet is said to also reduce the risk of heart disease, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cause the most deaths in the United States.

Subscribing to a single nutritional plan is difficult, and most likely unsustainable. Here are some final suggestions for a healthy person and healthy planet:

1. Buy local and organic produce. Stay away from fruits and vegetables that have been genetically modified or exposed to pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
2. Stick to humanely-treated, grass-fed or pasture-raised meat. Look for certified organic and certified humane products.
3. Eat sustainable seafood—no air-freighted or farmed fish.
4. Feast on Fair Trade fare—this aids producers in developing countries and promotes sustainability.
5. Wasting food is linked to global warming.  To reduce waste, buy less, plan meals, make detailed shopping lists, and save time and money by keeping the excess from home and restaurant meals and eating leftovers.
6. Lastly, consider composting.