Do we need a climate-friendly diet?

A shift to sustainable food habits can be healthy in terms of nutrition, and economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable

Do we need a climate-friendly diet?
While health and nutrition are important for the body, taste matters to the mind. (File)

Diet plays a very important role in climate change. Whether one consumes dairy, meat or other food products, a consistent dietary shift can cut down greenhouse-gas emissions, cropland, and pasture requirement, enhance biodiversity protection, and reduce mitigation costs.

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health Report — a full scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system, and which actions can support and speed up food system transformation – suggests how without any action, the world can risk failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, and the new generation would inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population would suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.

This means that a planetary health plate should consist by volume of approximately half a plate of vegetables and fruits and the other half should consist of whole grains, plant protein sources, unsaturated plant oils, and modest amounts of animal sources of protein. Professor Walter Willett, MD Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health quotes in the EAT-Lancet report, “Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”

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Clearly, a shift to a sustainable or climate-friendly diet can be healthy in terms of nutrition, and economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. It does not disrupt plant growth patterns and allows them to grow organically, use renewable energy, invest in energy-efficient appliances, and decrease pollution. The report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Globally known not-for-profit organisation Climates Network suggests climatarian as “a diet shift can save a tonne of CO2 equivalents per person per year.” This means what humans eat has a significant impact on the climate, topsoil, pollution, and deforestation.

However, increased public awareness about the effect of the food eaten and its production on health and environment in recent years has led to a growing interest in diets like climatarian, flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diets.

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Manasa Lakshmi Penta, clinical dietician, GITAM Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Visakhapatnam, says, “As per the United Nations, beef production is the highest contributor to carbon emissions per kilogram of food followed by lamb, shellfish, and dairy production, specifically cheese. On the contrary, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes produce the least amount of carbon emissions per kilogram of food. A climatarian diet encourages people to choose foods that have the least impact/footprint on the environment and are grown locally. It doesn’t strictly restrict meat and meat products.”

According to Penta, a flexible dietary approach can emphasise plant-based and dairy foods while decreasing the portions and frequency of meat consumed. “Some vegetarians follow a Lacto-Ovo vegetarian diet, which includes egg and milk products in their diet. Though vegan diets produce the least amount of carbon emissions, often these products can be highly processed. Packaging and transport of vegan products indirectly contribute to carbon emissions. In addition, vegan diets can be deficient in nutrients such as vitamin B12, iron and zinc which are abundantly available from animal sources. Thus, a carefully planned vegetarian diet under the guidance of a diet expert can help in achieving good health while decreasing carbon footprints towards climate change,” says Penta.

Food consumption not only impacts the body, mind and soul but has a great effect on the planet. According to Ayurveda expert Dr Smita Naram, co-founder, Ayushakti, an ayurvedic healthcare services and holistic wellness solutions platform, changing what humans grow and eat will help reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainable farming.

“Following a vegan or vegetarian diet is a great way to help save our planet from the disastrous climate changes we can face. An ancient Ayurveda diet is about vegetarian food and is prescribed keeping everyone’s doshas in mind. Ayurveda diet is suggested keeping habits, culture, climate/seasons, and is climate-friendly, which also means one can be conscious of what you eat, keeping in mind the effect of the carbon footprint of different foods. Meat and dairy account for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” adds Naram.

But can changing to a flexi or climate-friendly diet lessen carbon emissions and promote sustainable farming? Experts suggest a climatarian diet can be the best alternative to save the environment. In a climatarian diet, there are no major do’s except eating healthy home cooked food that is not processed says celebrity nutritionist Shweta Shah, who is also the founder of EatFit 24/7 that makes tailor-made diet plans. “Out of climatarian, flexitarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets, it is very easy to say that sticking to seasonal and local food choices is the best option. But it is important to make mindful choices and research on how and where the food comes from. Be a little informed about the harm the processing, packaging, transportation of it might be causing to the environment,” adds Shah.

According to Shah, a climatarian diet encourages good use of nutritious food and decreases processed food intake which can help evade lifestyle disorders like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, PCOD, obesity.

Environmental impact

Food production is a very important contributor to climate change as it holds nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. There are foods that create more GHG while food from animals makes up two-thirds of all agricultural GHG emissions.

Plant-based foods generally have a much lower environmental impact. The increase in agricultural emissions in the form of methane and nitrous oxide, cattle belching and the addition of natural or synthetic fertilisers and wastes to soils add to global agricultural emissions. From 1990 to 2010, global agricultural emissions increased 8% and are projected to increase 15% by 2030, says a World Resources Institute report.

WWF’s report titled ‘Bending the Curve: The Restorative Power of Planet-Based Diets’ helps individuals and policymakers understand the health and environmental impact of diets. “Dietary changes take place at the local level, so it’s important to translate the global agenda into actionable national-level analysis,” says Brent Loken, WWF’s global food lead scientist and lead author of the report.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, in some countries there needs to be a significant reduction in the consumption of animal-source foods, while in others there may need to be an increase to tackle burdens of under nutrition. Health and the environment need to be considered together,” Loken adds.

Healthy Diets

A planetary health plate should consist by volume of approximately half a plate of vegetables and fruits; the other half, displayed by contribution to calories, should consist of primarily whole grains, plant protein sources, unsaturated plant oils, and (optionally) modest amounts of animal sources of protein.

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First published on: 11-12-2022 at 02:15 IST