Healthy eating should include thinking about the environmental cost of your food. Al Case/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
Following our annual Christmas overindulgence, many of us have set ambitious goals for the year ahead. But eating healthy shouldn’t just mean cutting down on snacks; given the environmental impact of food production, a more sustainable diet should feature high on everyone’s list of New Year’s resolutions.
Australians have one of the largest per capita dietary environmental footprints in the world, so there’s definitely room for improvement. But, as with all diets, radical and sudden changes like going vegan or vegetarian are notoriously difficult.
Smaller, more achievable behavioural shifts are more realistic. This also makes sense from an environmental perspective – large-scale drastic changes might end up shifting one type of environmental impact to another.
This guide is about making informed, feasible changes towards a more environmentally sustainable diet. It starts with the food items you put in your shopping basket.
Sustainability researchers, like myself, track the life cycle of food from farm to fork, measuring the energy used and emissions generated by the entire process.
Australia’s food consumption contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, land clearing and biodiversity loss, and ocean pollution.
There are many reasons our diets have such a large environmental impact, but one of the biggest is that we’re a nation of meat eaters. On average, an Aussie eats 95kg of meat a year, significantly more than the OECD average of 69kg.
Generally, animal-derived foods require more energy and resources and release significantly more emissions than most plant foods. This is particularly true for red meat: the current average consumption is 24% higher than the maximum recommended intake.
Another reason is our overconsumption of total calories, often driven by junk foods. Eating more food than we need means the environmental resources used in producing that extra food are wasted. It also leads to a range of health problems such as obesity.
Finally, the extraordinary amount of household food waste in Australia – around 3.1 million tonnes of edible food a year – also has a major impact.