What we eat has a great impact not only on our environment but also on our health and development. Given the multiplicity of frequently contradictory official recommendations, how can we chart a path that enables us to meet both our needs and those of the planet?
In recent years, the recommendation “Five a day” has become a mantra in our everyday lives. In countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, public health campaigns have been run to inform the public on the necessity of increasing the proportion of fruit and vegetables in our diet. The “five-a-day” rule was based on a recommendation of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), stating that 400 grams of such food should be consumed everyday
for the prevention of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, as well as for the prevention and alleviation of several micronutrient deficiencies, especially in less developed countries.
In a context where chronic, non-communicable diseases are spreading in the developed world – and will soon do so in the developing world, as it progressively adopts the same dietary habits as the North – this recommendation serves as a warning. However, public health is not the only reason why some people choose to adopt a plant-based diet, sometimes completely ruling out meat and/or other animal products. Vegetarians and vegans have long promoted a lifestyle that does not rely – or only to a certain extent – on animal foods, either for ethical reasons (not contributing to animal suffering) or on medical grounds (plant-based diets are said to be healthier) – or both. Environmental concern is also a growing justification: meat production has such an impact on water resources, soil exhaustion and greenhouse gas emissions that, to many, the most important thing they can do for the planet is simply to kick the meat-eating habit.
On the other hand, as several studies have shown, the products with the greatest impact on the environment are also those that most fulfill basic needs: first meat , then fish, dairy products and eggs – the best protein and B12 vitamin suppliers we know. This probably explains why it is so hard to achieve a balanced vision of a healthy and sustainable diet. Caricature-based antagonism between meat addicts and vegetable lovers seems to be taking over most discussions, whereby one is either an irresponsible polluter incapable of giving up meat for the greater good, or a moralising herbivore who puts their health, or that of their children, at risk. People take sides, and each accuses the other of having overlooked the healthier solution.
What happens in the middle ground? When agriculture, alimentation, nutritional recommendations and environmental concern come together, it is often hard to find a definite, simple answer. How can we manage to fight malnutrition in developing countries, curb non-communicable diseases in the developed world and protect our environment? In other words, is it possible to reconcile our needs and protecting the environment? This tricky equation should not leave out a very important part of nutrition: choice.
When nutrition and sustainability are at issue, it is often wise to turn to science. In a 2006 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, entitled
Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns,
Italian researchers compared the environmental impacts of three different dietary patterns (omnivorous, vegetarian, vegan), testing organic and traditional “versions” of each – thus amounting to six different diets. Such work is in line with the aims of nutritional ecology – an “interdisciplinary scientific areaof research that incorporates the entire food chain as wellas its interactions with health, environment, society andeconomy.” The assessment of the six diets, “equivalent to one anotherfor energetic and nutrient content”, was made using a tool called Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) enabling the effects of each diet on human health, ecosystems quality and resources to be evaluated. The results did not generate a great deal of surprise: on the one hand, the more animal products there are in the diet, the greater the impact on the environment; on the other, chemical-conventionalproduction methods have a greater impact than organic methods. Consequently, both vegan and organic diets are better for the environment. However, within this broad observation, there are of course nuances. For instance, an omnivorous organic diet scores better, environmentally speaking, than a traditional vegetarian one. Furthermore, when transportation is factored in, the results vary even more widely. Citing another study, Lucas Reijnders and Sam Soret, in “Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices” (American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2003) write,
long-distance air transport of 1kg food hasroughly the same environmental impact as the primary productionof 1kg organic meat.
They also identify “deep-freezing, and some horticultural practices” as potential environmental burdens for vegetarian foods.A simple example that proves how tricky nutritional ecology can be – but also how much latitude we have in achieving it.
Protecting dietary freedom
We do not all have the same needs and tastes. The planet would probably be delighted if we all switched to vegetables, beans, tofu and cereal (although these have their environmental impacts too, as does any human activity), but there are other ways to protect it while keeping a diet that includes meat, dairy, fish and eggs. Veganism is by no means the only way to be responsible, all the more so because, for some categories of the population, it would be almost irresponsible to exclude animal products – unless extra care is taken. This was recently the subject of a polemic in the United States when Lindsay Allen, of the US Agricultural Research Service, declared:
If you’re talking about feeding young children, pregnant women and lactating women, I would go as far as to say it is unethical to withhold these foods [animal source foods] during that period of life.
She based her statement on research work she carried out among African schoolchildren, showing that two spoonfuls of meat or dairy products each day have a major impact on vitamin B12, zinc and iron intake and therefore on their cognitive and physical development. Based on similar findings, some scientists actually recommend placing greater emphasis on animal source food to fight malnutrition – a condition that still affects one in three people worldwide. As a matter of fact, whilst vegans and vegetarians (including babies and younger children) in developed countries can easily find alternatives for calcium, proteins and some vitamins (alternatives that sometimes involve popping pills), the same is not true of the inhabitants of poorer countries. Many solutions, once more, therefore depend on where and how the food is produced. There is no doubt, as Baroni and his fellow researchers wrote in the article “Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns”, that people who live in developed countries should be educated to
changetheir attitude with regard to consumption and to individualbehaviour. A shift in eating habits towards increasing direct consumption of plant foods seems tobe a desirable objective.
Rejinders and Soret even go a step further: “Ideally, people should always be allowed to choose the diet theywant, but under the current pressures imposed by overpopulation,resource scarcity, and overconsumption, absolute dietary freedomcould soon, lamentably, become a luxury. Encouraging individuals to eat moreefficiently (i.e., descend) on the food chain, consuming less meatand more plant-based foods, may be one of the types of measuresthat will lead to increased sustainability and reduced environmental costs of food production systems.” However, greater emphasis on vegetables does not mean that dairy, meat or eggs should be immediately ruled out. In fact, if we discover a more sustainable way of consuming these products, by resorting to local production, farm-to-fork circuits, organic and responsible farming, we might just be able to preserve dietary freedom and make it accessible to less wealthy countries. This should definitely be a goal for the future, rather than trying to impose one single orthodoxy. For vegans and meat-lovers alike, “luxury” should be an option for all!
(Photo from https://wellness.byu.edu)