The way food is produced today is responsible for a large part of current environmental problems. “…more specifically the global production of food is responsible for upward of 30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (from food production through to consumption) and more than 70% of fresh water uses (withdrawn from rivers, lakes, and aquifers.” Agriculture uses 85% of global surface and groundwater. One-third is for production of animal products (mostly for animal feed).
Global population growth is the cause, in large part, of concern about the sustainability of our natural resources for human survival in the future. Little progress is being made on that front. The authors propose ways that human choice, in this case dietary, can make a difference in the future. The goal of this article is to merge the dietary needs of a world population headed toward huge rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD) with the needs of the world environmentally. We must maintain a healthy water supply, greenhouse gas production at acceptable levels, and maximal natural biodiversity. This summary will include some of the authors’ many useful conclusions about how this can be done.
Around 7000 different plants have been used by humans at some time in history. In contrast, today we mainly use only 12 different grains, only 23 vegetables, and only 35 fruit and nut crops. That’s only 70 plants (1% of those used historically). This is not sustainable because it contributes to eventual loss of biodiversity. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines sustainable diets as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations”.
The sustainability of the components of a cardioprotective diet depends on the carbon footprint, the water footprint, and the ecological footprint of the products involved. Shifting towards a more vegan diet is said to contribute most to reducing greenhouse gasses. Shifting to a Mediterranean diet reduces GHG by 6-17%, and shifting to a vegetarian diet reduces GHG by 18-35%, shifting to a vegan diet reduces GHG by 24-53%. These shifts would result in lower GHG while reducing rates of non-communicable diseases (NCD), such as CVD worldwide. A reduction of animal products in the diet, especially beef, lowers the water footprint.
In general, water and carbon footprints of grains are low. Rice has a high water footprint compared to other grains because of the way it is grown. Rice contributes 10% of all agriculture GHG emissions due to its extensive worldwide cultivation. Wheat has only 20% of the GHG emissions of rice based on calculations for equal amounts of protein.
Eating 60 grams of fish daily reduces deaths by 12% yearly. The benefits of eating more fish must be weighted against the high ecological footprint of unsustainable fishing practices, such as over-fishing and use of trawlers which catch unwanted fish. It is true that fish are relatively more sustainable than land animals. The previous low levels of omega-3 in farmed fish are increasing with changing in feeding practices, so some farmed fish now have more omega-3 than their wild counterparts. There is concern with farmed fish about antibiotic use and feeding fishmeal to fish.
Dairy products’ water and carbon footprints are high due to the feed used for cows. About 19% of the global water footprint is due to dairy cows’ water footprint. Cheese is highest since it takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. Shifting from eating cheese to using milk and yogurt retains the health benefits of dairy while reducing the environmental footprint.
Vegetable oils high in polyunsaturated fats reduce the risk of CVD. Examples are sunflower, soy, rapeseed, and groundnuts. Olive oil has a high water footprint. Palm oil has a very high ecological footprint because of rapid deforestation where palms grow.
Sugar from beets and cane has extremely low environmental footprints, but this is not meant to encourage the use of sugar, which is not good for CVD.
Threats to the food supply include the loss of biodiversity worldwide. Also, there are threats to pollinators globally. Loss of bee populations could reduce global food production by 35%.
Lower consumption of red meat is recommended to reduce CVD, especially processed meats. Carbon and water footprints of beef are the highest of all foods. One kg. beef is produced from 61.1 kg. of grain, and 33% of global water footprint for animals is for beef production. Grazing animals have more omega-3, but with high environmental impact compared to “industrial production systems”. Also, grazing cows produce more methane gas, increasing GHG. (It should be noted that red meat is a good source of zinc and iron, and is a good complementary food for infants and children.)
CONCLUSION: Many food choices are good for the planet. When current choices are not beneficial, there are alternatives in each food group which are more sustainable and cardioprotective. When there are increases in food production of heart-healthy foods, these changes should be more sustainable.
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