Hashem Al Zubiedi
The Impacts of Our Dietary Choices
With a rapidly growing population of 7.6 billion people, what we eat determines how the planet is used.
Deforestation, erosion, land degradation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, water scarcity, food security, climate change
The human demand of resources is advancing virtually every environmental issue
Although the current global food production system is able to produce sufficient amounts for the human population, the accessibility of food is becoming more challenging in many areas of the world. In conjunction with an expansive depletion of resources, our consumption patterns have drastically altered in ways that are proving to be destructive to our health.
Many of us “know” that we should eat more sustainably – but many of us fail to do so.
What is preventing us from using this knowledge and acting upon it?
Our food choices are influenced by factors such as beliefs and attitudes, which both depend on the environment we’re predisposed to. This environment is built on our collective upbringing, religion, culture, social context, economic status, and exposure to media. These factors are building blocks to our personalities and have a stubborn grasp on our habits, making change feel extremely difficult.
Dietary change has proved to be difficult to implement effectively. Although consumers generally have positive attitudes and a growing interest in sustainability, there is often a gap between consumer attitudes and their behaviour.
Ambivalence and optimistic bias towards food are two possible reasons for why dietary changes lack success.
Ambivalence refers to having mixed feelings about certain diets and relying on preference rather than health as a measure of quality. Optimistic bias is when individuals underestimate the overall perceived risk that a particular diet may have on themselves or the environment.
This illustrates that consumer attitudes do not necessarily reflect their consumption behaviours or decisions. Food choices are often influenced by price and convenience, while ethical factors and their implications are an afterthought.
If we become victims of optimistic bias, it is unlikely that we will be influenced by messages that emphasize the need for the general population to make changes. Consumers must be convinced that their behavior has implications for issues such as environmental degradation and social inequality. Ethical and sustainable dietary changes are stimulated by certainty, increased involvement, perceived effectiveness, and the availability of sustainable products.
52% of consumers who had positive attitudes towards sustainable foods did not purchase those foods due to their low perceived availability, inconvenience, and price. On the other hand, consumers with negative personal attitudes who experienced social pressures from their peers had higher intentions to make sustainable food choices.
What is a sustainable diet?
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations: “Those diets with low environmental impacts that contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets work at optimizing the natural and human resources by considering all aspects of the issue: environmental, nutritional, cultural, social, and economic.”
The global food system currently accounts for 30% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) // The FAO estimates that meat production alone accounts for 18% of this footprint // the production and consumption of animal-based diets are linked to having higher GHGEs and are more land- and water-intensive compared to plant-based diets
Thus, adopting healthy and well-balanced diets that have a higher proportion of fruits, vegetables, and grains - with a lower proportion of animal-based products - could significantly lessen the demand for agricultural land, decrease GHGEs from food production, and reduce the mitigation costs for meeting the 2 degrees Celsius target set by the Paris Agreement.
Is the solution to get rid of livestock?
Although around 70% of agricultural land is used to grow feed for livestock, there remains a substantial portion of livestock that is grass-fed. Much of the grassland that is used for animal feed cannot be converted to arable land without harmful environmental impacts. In addition, livestock is used for ploughing and transportation in some regions, plays a huge cultural role in many poorer communities, and provides a local supply of manure for use as fertilizer.
It is important to recognize that the argument that all meat consumption is bad is overly simplistic.
Livestock-based food products represent important sources of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, especially for poor and undernourished people in low-income countries. In addition, since animal foods are far denser in calories and nutrients than most plant foods, diets that include modest amounts of meat and fat—compared to higher-fat vegetarian diets—can feed slightly more people.
Our health cannot be isolated from the health of our environment
Shifting towards plant-based diets could preserve natural resources and potentially improve human health and nutrition. Recent studies suggest that food production must increase from 70% to 100% by 2050. Therefore, shifting towards a plant-based diet seems to be the obvious solution to rectify most of the damages to Earth. As in any other dietary lifestyle, the individual must educate themself on how to prevent deficiencies and eat the right foods to ensure that their health is not at risk.
Ultimately, food production and consumption will need to change in the future, especially if we want to feed a rapidly growing population of over 7 billion people.
On the other hand, diets in wealthier countries are becoming less healthy and are increasing the risks of obesity and other health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
Diet is a function of habit, and integrated habits die hard. For those who cannot fully adhere to dietary changes, cutting back on processed foods, meat, and dairy products can go a long way towards improving our health and the health of the environment.
After all, the human species was not designed to stick to a single, optimal diet. Some non-vegetarian, self-selected diets consumed by a large fraction of the general population have shown to be affordable, nutritious, and beneficial to the environment. Eating sustainably can be achieved without drastic dietary changes, and a complete shift to vegetarianism or veganism is not the only option.
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