Importance of Topic to Practice
We are faced with the challenge of a growing global population on a planet undergoing an environmental sustainability crisis. Although food consumption and consumer choice is only one part of the overall picture of food systems sustainability, a growing body of literature suggests that moving toward more plant-based diets may be one of the most effective actions individuals can undertake to reduce negative impacts on the environment (1). This shift can also support access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for an increasing population (2,3). A solid grounding in the evidence that supports this shift toward a more plant-based diet and environmentally sustainable diet will help dietitians to guide consumer choice, and policy and program decisions.
Definitions and Scope
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines sustainable diets as “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations” (4). This backgrounder reviews the evidence around the environmental impact of dietary choices that address the question “can plant-based dietary patterns have lower environmental impact?”. The scope of this discussion does not include important social aspects of sustainable diets such as inequities in access to food, Indigenous food systems (especially traditional or country foods), food sovereignty, social justice and income-related issues of household food insecurity (5).
The use of the term 'environment' in this paper refers to the ecological (or 'green') environment. In this backgrounder, plant-based diets are defined as those diets for which plant foods (including grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds) form the ‘base’ of meals, while animal foods (including meats, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, insects) can be included, usually in smaller quantities. Plant-based diets encompass vegetarian diets (from strict vegans to lacto-ovo vegetarians), and may or may not include some animal-based foods.
“The determinants of a[n]… environmentally … sustainable diet are numerous and complex,” (6) embedded within broader food systems that include food production, processing, packaging, regulation, transportation, marketing, consumption and waste systems. Some examples of the interrelated issues that add to the complexity of determinants are: food waste, agricultural policies, land, water and energy use, climate change, biodiversity, pollution and topsoil loss. The complexity is compounded if also considering social and cultural sustainability factors such as labour rights, public health, food safety, trade and economic interests.
A systems approach is helpful in thinking about the numerous, interrelated and complex factors that may support and promote sustainable dietary choices because it fosters an understanding of the relationships between these factors (e.g. that food waste is related to both resource use, through embedded energy in the food, and climate change, through the gases released during decomposition). A systems approach is also essential when measuring the impact of food and our diets on the environment. While this backgrounder will not map the indicators and their relationships, it is important to acknowledge that the following summary on plant-based diets and the environment highlights isolated indicators of measurement that are part of a larger system.
The most frequently used indicators of food’s environmental impact are greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), water use and land use (7-11). Other less frequently used indicators of environmental impact include energy use, biodiversity, pollution (e.g. water), nitrogen release and soil degradation (11). While most of the evidence centres on the frequently used measures, examining only these indicators compromises the ability to measure the impact on the broader food system. On one hand, focusing only on the most frequent measures may underestimate the impact of a specific food on the environment. For example, if only GHGE of the production of a specific food, such as bananas, is considered, the impact of pesticides on human health and the ecosystem may be ignored. On the other hand, while some type of food production, such as pasture-based meat production, may result in higher GHGE, it may not consider the positive contributions to biodiversity, human nutrition, the use of non-arable land and rural livelihoods.
Life cycle analyses (LCA) are commonly used to measure the impact of certain foods on the indicators noted above (12). LCA is a standardized research method defined by the International Standards Organization (ISO), and has been accepted as the primary method of assessing the sustainability of diets (12-15), including the U.S. DGAC scientific report assessing food sustainability (16).
The impact on specific foods can then be combined to study overall dietary patterns. Although the methodology for calculating LCA is standardized, what is included in the analysis can vary, making comparison difficult. As such, it is important to examine the overall trends across the results of environmental impact studies. Furthermore, expanding the number of indicators measured toward an even broader systems approach would more accurately examine these indicators in the context of other environmental indicators. Despite the limitations, LCA remains as the standard way to measure the impact of foods and diet on the environment.
Food systems incur environmental costs. The following sections explore in more detail how the food system is a primary driver of global environmental degradation and, in particular, GHGE. Additionally, the overall trend across multiple environmental indicators shows that the production, processing and distribution of animal-based foods, such as meat and dairy products, typically have greater negative environmental impacts than impacts from growing, processing and distributing plant-based foods.
In her key paper, Food Sustainability: Problems, Perspectives and Solutions, Garnett proposes three solutions to improve sustainability: 1) increased agricultural efficiency through increased mechanization and better breeding and feeding strategies; 2) restraint strategies such as reducing the consumption of animal products and ultra-processed foods and increased consumption of whole, plant-based foods; and 3) more equitable distribution of use of existing resources (17).
While all of these strategies can be important to improve the sustainability of the food system, replacing meat with plant foods across the population may have the greatest potential to decrease environmental impact, especially with respect to GHGE and water use (18,19). This “restraint” strategy is the focus of this backgrounder, with additional reference to efficiencies and distribution. The following three sections review what is known about the impacts of plant-based and animal-based diets on the environment, and how this knowledge is informing dietary guidance in some nations. This backgrounder then finishes with comments on the role of dietitians and an overall conclusion.
Impact of Plant-Based Diet on the Environment
A predominantly plant-based diet with no or a reduced consumption of meat and dairy products is reported to be both healthier and more environmentally sustainable as measured by GHGE, land use, water use and energy use (3,10,20). The idea that plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than those rich in animal foods was systematically reviewed in the Scientific Report of the 2015 (U.S.) Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (16). That report stated that “a diet higher in plant-based foods... and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact [in terms of GHGE, land use, water use, and energy use] than is the current U.S. diet”. They also added that “This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern.” Other plant-based diets, such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which emphasize vegetables and fruit, pulses and whole grains, have also been shown to have a lower environmental impact than the typical diets of higher income “Western” countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia (16,20).
The Advisory Committee raised three major points in the 2015 Scientific Report with respect to their findings (16):
- More sustainable dietary patterns were ones “that can be adopted by the U.S. population”.
- “No food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.”
- (Most salient to this backgrounder) environmental impact reductions were attributed to the proportions of animal- to plant-based foods (versus other factors such as calorie reduction).
In general, the production of plant-based foods generates lower GHGE than animal-based foods (21). The hierarchy of GHGE impacts across food categories (from lowest to highest CO2 emissions) is as follows: root vegetables, field-grown vegetables, field-grown fruit, cereals (except rice), tree nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruit from heated greenhouses, rice, dairy milk and yogurt, non-ruminant livestock (including fish), cheese and ruminant livestock. Plant-based foods also have a lower impact on water and land use (16,21). The environmental impact of growing specific plant foods depends on a number of factors involved in the production and transport of these foods, as well as the climatic conditions and region. For example, in regions with short growing seasons, fruit and vegetables may be grown in energy intensive greenhouses, with environmental impacts that may exceed those of imported food. Tomatoes grown in hothouses and berries transported by plane are examples of plant-based foods with higher GHGEs (22,23).
While there is movement to promote the consumption of more local and seasonal foods, substantial differences in environmental impacts of specific foods should be considered among regions with short growing seasons and other regions where crops can be grown year-round (7). As noted above, while local and seasonal field-grown vegetables and fruit have been shown to produce lower GHGEs, this may not hold true if the same vegetables and fruit are grown in heated greenhouses. The regular consumption of globally seasonal plant foods may therefore contribute to lower environmental costs overall if such dietary choices facilitate lower GHGE choices, as well as a consumption of a more plant-based diet, containing smaller amounts of animal products (22-24).
Similarly, while the production of plant-based foods requires less water use overall, compared to foods of animal origin, some plant foods, such as almonds and olive oil, require more irrigation and therefore generate higher water footprints (25), particularly when grown in regions with water scarcity. Rice and wheat are examples of grains that require a high amount of water to produce (26), although the impact of that water use varies from region to region. Much of the argument favouring plant-based diets is predicated on what is known about the relatively greater environmental impacts associated with foods of animal origin.
Impact of Animal-Based Diets on the Environment
As noted above, the production of animal-based foods generates higher GHGE (and requires greater water and land use) than the production of plant-based foods (3,4,20,26,27).
The global food system contributes 20-30% of GHGE (28-30). Gerber, et al. estimated that livestock production alone contributes GHGE of 7.1 gigatonnes CO2-equivalents per year, representing 14.5 percent of human-induced GHGE (31) (and some experts consider this to be an underestimation) (28). Beef and dairy production account for the majority of that environmental impact, respectively contributing 41 and 20% of the GHGE associated with livestock production. Poultry, pork and egg production contribute a smaller CO2 output, between 8-9% of the livestock sector’s emissions (32).
The processing and transportation of food products are often assumed to produce a large proportion of the GHGE emissions related to agriculture. In the animal agriculture industry; however, this accounts for only about 6% of GHGE produced through the sector (31). The greater proportions of CO2 emissions are from feed production and processing (45%) (including impacts related to deforestation, land use and quality - see related sections below), methane released from ruminant animals (39%) and manure storage (10%) (32).
The agriculture sector has made substantial improvements to lower GHGE. For example, the Canadian beef industry has successfully reduced GHGE by approximately 14% in the past 30 years (1981-2011) (33). This has been accomplished through more efficient herd nutrition and breeding strategies that have led to increased daily weight gain and reduced time to slaughter for animals (34). Gerber, et al. believe a 30% reduction of GHG emissions from the livestock sector would be possible if producers adopted the technologies and practice currently used by the 10% of producers with the lowest emission intensity (31).
Much of the increased agricultural production, or yield “efficiency” of the past century has been underpinned by availability of fossil fuels (28,34), which have associated GHGE. As energy needs and fuel availability change in the future, more efficient methods of feeding the world will be essential, including greater reliance on less energy-intensive plant agriculture, and more innovative ways to improve agricultural efficiency (34). For a more fulsome exploration of the complexities in measuring efficiency (specific to ruminant meats), see Garnett, Roos and Little (35).
According to the UN, agricultural irrigation accounts for 70% of global water use and this global agricultural demand for water is projected to increase by 30% by 2030 (36). The consumption of foods of animal origin is responsible for proportionately greater water use than the consumption foods of plant origin (37). In the European Union, the water footprint (the total volume of freshwater used to produce the goods consumed) for foods of animal origin is higher than those of plant foods, per caloric value, and in examining the water footprint for various dietary patterns, authors Vanhan, Mekonnen and Hoekstra concluded that a reduction in meat intake would result in the largest impact on the reducing water use (26).
Livestock production can have a positive environmental impact on some measures of land use and quality. Some livestock consume agriculture byproducts, such as parts of plants inedible to humans and potentially wasted foods (and thereby decrease land use associated with that food, as well as GHGE from decomposition) (38). Livestock can also help to maintain biodiverse landscapes and utilize land unsuited to other agricultural purposes. Many regions graze animals on land not suited for crop production. While pasture-raised animals may provide higher quality of life for animals and lower environmental impacts related to more intensive farming strategies (e.g. concentrated manure seepage into the water table), such a strategy may not be practical to meet all of the current or projected consumption demands and could require more farmland than what is available in some regions. It should be noted that the complex variables in livestock grazing systems and their various environmental impacts is highly contextual. Garnett and colleagues conclude that “while grazing livestock have their place in a sustainable food system, that place is limited” (39), in particular because of the rising demand for meat products (40).
Included within the estimated proportion of GHGE from feed production (45% of total emissions in animal agriculture) (31), is the impact of changes in land use for pasture and production of animal feed (primarily soy) for the global market, which expands into previously forested land. According to the World Bank, animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon region (41). This trend is of global importance for maintaining the health of the earth’s atmosphere. Worldwide, forests absorb about 2.4 metric tonnes of carbon each year, and one quarter of that total is absorbed by the Amazon rainforest; a decline in the capacity of the Amazon rainforest to act as a carbon sink will put the global environment in jeopardy (42).
Currently, the global demand for meat is increasing because of an emerging middle class, who can afford more expensive protein sources, in countries undergoing economic transition, especially in India and China (43). The concern is that the rising demand outstrips both efficiency gains, and overall resource constraints. It has been suggested that an equitable approach to this particular challenge is that populations who consume high proportions of animal-sourced foods consume less, while populations who currently are challenged to meet their nutrient needs through plant-based diets, consume more (17).
Another argument is to redirect plant foods currently going to raise livestock toward human consumption. In 2011, Foley, et al. estimated that shifting 16 major crops to 100% human consumption, away from the current mix of animal plus human consumption, could add over a billion tonnes to global food production (34). Although a theoretical argument (because a 100% shift is unlikely), this helps to rectify the concern that by decreasing the production and consumption of animal foods, there would be less food, and also highlights that current practices may be inefficient.
In addition to caloric inefficiency, in a 2014 study, researchers calculated that beef requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer and 11 times more water compared with chicken, pork, eggs or dairy. Plant sources of energy (wheat, potato and rice) in turn required two to six times fewer land, greenhouse gas and nitrogen resources than non-beef animal-derived calories (44). Irrigation requirements were similar. It is therefore more efficient (in terms of calories as well as natural resources) to meet this increased need for nutrition through plant foods as much as possible (45).
In summary, research on overall dietary patterns support that plant-based diets have lower environmental impacts on GHGE, land use and water use than do diets rich in animal-based foods, which are the norm in most industrialized, high income, 'Western' nations. There are other important indicators, such as biodiversity, antibiotic resistance or pollution and their interactions, that would need to be considered in relation to each other for a richer picture of the actual environmental impact of human diets. Furthermore, because the actual impact of specific foods varies from region to region, as well as according to the methods of production, processing, distribution, etc., guidance that is generalizable for a nation is limited in that regard. Rather, general guidance becomes important (such as the overall evidence that plant-based diets have lower impacts), allowing consumers to make specific choices that meet their many other dietary priorities.
Diets and Dietary Guidance
Integrating environmental sustainability in dietary guidance is not a new concept. As early as 1986, Gussow and Clancy published Dietary Guidelines for Sustainability (45) that many in the sustainable diets field credit as seminal work. Since then there has been a steadily growing in interest in policy options to support sustainability. International governance bodies have been working to provide leadership. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has led conceptual research and guidance on sustainable diets, including a well recognized definition:
“… those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources” (4). The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) proposed policy aimed at reducing overconsumption of protein by reducing the consumption of animal-based foods as part of sustainable solutions that work within increasingly urbanized populations (46,47).
The recommendations of IFPRI and FAO come in a decade of increasing evidence linking animal foods to environmental challenges, as outlined above. In response, a variety of actors, from national governments to industry to civil society organizations, are starting to include environmental messages in dietary guidance documents; many of them highlighting plant-based diets.
Sweden has included an environmental focus in the title of their dietary guidelines: “Find your way to eat greener, not too much and be active”, as well as specific messages about choices within each food group with less environmental impact (48). In Brazil, one of the five principles that shape the guidelines includes “Healthy diets derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems” (49). They further emphasize “[n]atural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, and mainly of plant origin, are the basis for diets that are nutritionally balanced, delicious, culturally appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems” (49). Qatar incorporates a section in their dietary guidelines entitled “Eat Healthy While Protecting the Environment” including six recommendations for consumers that emphasize “[n]atural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, and mainly of plant origin, are the basis for diets that are nutritionally balanced, delicious, culturally appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems” (50). The United Kingdom’s Eatwell Guide visually deemphasized the animal-based food groups (meat and alternatives, and dairy and alternatives) in proportion to the fruit and vegetables food group, as well as grains food group, and also naming meat and alternatives “beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins,” thereby further highlighting plant-based protein sources (51). In support, the British Dietetics Association released a policy statement in 2018 that nutrition professionals value this approach and will work to integrate environmental considerations in dietetic practice (52).
The degree of integration of environmental messages in dietary guidance varies. Other governments have explicitly chosen to detach or downgrade environmental messages from their public dietary guidance. The United States for example chose to leave out the recommendations from the Scientific Advisory Report (22) on environmental sustainability in the 2015 update, while in the 2013 Australian dietary guidelines environmental sustainability messages placed in an appendix rather than being central to the messages (53). In 2019, Health Canada released the new food guide (54). The new Canada’s Food Guide has a stronger emphasis on plant-based dietary practices than previous versions.
In addition, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada is leading the development of a food policy for Canada (with extensive interdepartmental representation) (55). One of the four proposed themes in the food policy is “Conserving our Soil, Water, and Air”, in which the accompanying text highlights a need for “[u]sing environmentally sustainable practices to ensure Canadians have a long-term, reliable, and abundant supply of food.” Further elaborating, the proposed policy reads, “the way our food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed - including the losses and waste of food - can have environmental implications, such as greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, water quality and availability, and wildlife loss. While much is being done to conserve our natural resources, further opportunities exist to do more” (55).
In addition to the progress among nations to conceptually align diets that are healthy and environmentally sustainable, a variety of players from industry to civil society organizations have stepped in to the discourse on dietary guidance. One example of a tool intended for communicating with the public about healthy, environmentally sustainable food choices is the Double Pyramid Model, developed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition to Raise Awareness about the Environmental and Nutritional Impact of Foods (56). Barilla researchers estimated the energy consumption and environmental impact of different foods in diets with varying levels of animal products to estimate how a diet can be both nutritionally adequate and have a low impact on the environment. The Double Pyramid Model emphasizes optimal food choices for both health promotion and environmental protection (56). Similarly, the Eating for Two Degrees project developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Foundation recommends decreasing (U.K.) consumption of animal-sourced protein from the current 124 grams per day to 81 grams per day, and negligible decreases in dairy intake (from 193 to 192 grams per day) (57).
Co-benefits for Health and Environment and the Role of Dietitians
As the above brief evidence review has shown, a shift toward plant-based diets is a win-win for both health and the environment. Evidence shows that plant-based diets and a reduction of (in particular red and processed) meats (58) is healthy for both individual and the environment (9,27). For example, plant foods such as pulses provide nutrients also found in animal-based foods, such as folate, iron and zinc, in addition other nutrients critical to health, such as fibre; while also, as part of the legume family, improve soil quality by fixing nitrogen into the soil (19,37).
It is important to note, on the other hand, that a healthy diet is not necessarily an environmentally sustainable one, or vice versa. For example, while the importance of vegetables and fruit in our diet is broadly recognized, the consumption of air-transported produce in large amounts may negate environmental contributions. Likewise, Millward and Garnett acknowledge that the consumption of meat and dairy products is responsible for approximately 40% of food-related emissions, decreased consumption of these foods could potentially increase nutritional risks in relation to zinc, iron and calcium status (2). Furthermore, meat and dairy products are excellent sources of protein and vitamin B12. As such, simply removing these animal-based foods from the diet without substitution of nutritionally replete, plant-based food sources could result in increased risk for nutrient deficiencies.
While Wegener, et al. acknowledge the growing interest in sustainable food systems, they caution that more guidance is needed to support educators and preceptors in the training of Canadian dietitians (59,60). Similarly, Pettinger (61), in the U.K., acknowledges how little recognition or support there is for the emerging role for dietitians or nutritionists in promoting sustainable eating, in spite of a recently updated sustainable diet policy statement of the British Dietetic Association (BDA) (52), which states dietitians are “in a strong position to combine healthy eating messages and sustainable dietary advice”. Pettinger surmises the “lack of consensus on what constitutes a sustainable dietary pattern is likely to be a barrier to encouraging consumers to make sustainable food choices”, while nevertheless emphasizing how nutrition professionals could be “better prepared for a future where many aspects of nutrition practice are likely to be affected by climate change, water and land shortage, as well as other pressing food system challenges” (61). In 2014, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published standards for different levels of professional performance for registered dietitian nutritionists in sustainable, resilient, and healthy food and water systems (62).
Recent examples of dietitians working in advocacy and policy related to sustainability include the Dietitians of Canada response to a Health Canada consultation on dietary guidance/revision of Canada's Food Guide in 2016 (63) and the Dietetic Association of Australia’s response in 2017 to the Australian Framework on Climate Health and Well-being (64).
It is important to analyze for unintended negative impacts and avoid potential nutritional challenges and broader policy consequences that might result from a shift to more plant-based foods in human diets (2). Examples include challenging access to plant-based options in some remote locations, changes in agricultural practices and livelihoods, and negative social, cultural and economic impacts for those that are dependent on animal food production. If plant-based diets become more prominent, countries may need to re-evaluate their nutrient fortification practices based on changes in nutrient intake at a population level. Education for health professionals, including dietitians, will need to be adapted to ensure that they are knowledgeable about plant-based diets and are well prepared to offer their services to those transitioning to or eating a plant-based diet. Health professionals will need to use a systems thinking approach to anticipate and mitigate these unintended challenges.
Dietitians are key communicators of public nutrition messages, and in that role need to be competent in translating information around plant-based diets into practical strategies and tips that people can use to reduce the environmental impact of their diets while maximizing health benefits. Dietitians also need to be prepared to actively participate in broader policy conversations around sustainable food systems, sustainable diets and dietary guidance.
A shift toward plant-based diets can be a win-win for the health of both humans and the environment. The complex inter-relationships among socio-cultural, ecological, and economic factors driving food choices will impact how people adopt plant-based diets. Dietitians are well positioned to help navigate and maximize these co-benefits at all levels, from the provision of individual diet counselling to contributions to policy development within the food system and public policy through all levels of government.
Continued assessment of the impact of plant-based diets on the environment is imperative to explore how emerging evidence best contributes within the overall conversation about sustainable diets, as evidence continues to emerge. Research and knowledge translation about food system and dietary sustainability will be ongoing, likely with more indicators being developed to measure success and identify priority areas for action (65).
There is a need for quality evidence-based data on the environmental impacts of different foods and food production systems so quality evidence-based data can be provided. While current scientific literature suggests that predominantly plant-based diets are better for the natural/ecological environment in terms of reducing GHGE, water footprint and land use, these three indicators represent only part of the overall picture of environmental sustainability.
While dietary choices are just one factor impacting the food system, individuals can exercise their greatest impact on the environment through their behaviours. It is strategic to integrate consideration of environmental impacts of dietary choice into dietary guidelines and further translate these messages to the public. Dietitians play a pivotal role in nutrition communication and education at the population, community and individual levels; the challenge will be to deliver the message of available alternate protein sources in ways that appeal to consumers dietary preferences. Dietitians can benefit from training and access to practice tools to assist them in counselling and education with the public, to encourage dietary choices that reduce the impact of human diets on the environment.
Resources for Professionals
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