This is the second part in my series exploring the question: What is the most sustainable diet. Check out part 1.
As I have discussed previously, sustainability is a complicated and highly contested topic. While there a wide variety of areas that can be included under sustainability, it is often primarily understood in terms of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
Mike Berners-Lee has done some interesting research into the carbon footprints (the volume of greenhouse gases emitted in order to produce a product) when he asked How Bad Are Bananas? (and lots of other things).
Since Berners-Lee has done his calculations in terms of bananas, I thought I would make the data a bit more fun for you to look at:
As you can see, there is a HUGE range between less and more emissions-intensive foods. In addition, it’s a bit (actually, a lot) more complicated by the fact that the carbon footprint of a product can vary drastically, depending on where and how it is produced. For instance, a bag of carrots can result in four times more emissions depending on the type, if they were produced locally and if they are in season. Nonetheless, root vegetables (like carrots) are some of the most climate-friendly foods, while highly processed foods and, in particular, foods from animal products, tend to be the most emissions intensive.
Comparing individual items can be extremely complex and, often, the information is lacking. But, the overall picture is clear: animal food products tend to have much higher carbon footprints than plant-based foods. These findings have been backed up by researchers looking at Finland, the UK, the EU, the globe, and more. In addition, researchers have found that the less a person relies on animal food products in their diet, the lower their dietary carbon footprint (with a vegan diet being the least emissions-intensive.) Research going against this tends to be based on irrelevant and deceiving measures of comparison.
BUT, once again, we have been trapped by a single parameter. First, land use, now greenhouse gas emissions. This is, unfortunately, a very singular notion that denies the complexity of environmental impacts of food production and consumption, as well as the other components that can be understood as part of achieving a sustainable future.
So, you’ll have to come back tomorrow for Part 3.