A major new study confirms that a diet high in fruit and vegetables is better for the planet than one high in animal products. The study also finds that organic food provides significant, additional climate benefits for plant-based diets, but not for diets with only moderate contribution from plant products. Published today in open access journal Frontiers in Nutrition, this is the first study to investigate the environmental impacts of both dietary patterns and farm production systems. It is also the first to investigate the environmental impact of organic food consumption using observed diets rather than models.
The method of food production may also influence sustainable diets. Organic agriculture is generally considered more environmentally friendly than other modern production techniques. However, while many studies have investigated environmentally sustainable diets, these have rarely considered both dietary choices and the production method of the foods consumed.
“Combining consumption and farm production data we found that across the board, diet-related environmental impacts were reduced with a plant-based diet — particularly greenhouse gas emissions,” says Louise Seconda. “The consumption of organic food added even more environmental benefits for a plant-based diet. In contrast, consumption of organic food did not add significant benefits to diets with high contribution from animal products and only moderate contribution from plant products.”
However the researchers caution that the environmental effects of production systems are not uniform and can be impacted by climate, soil types and farm management.
“We didn’t look at other indicators such as pesticide use, leaching and soil quality which are relevant to the environmental impacts of productions systems,” says Louise Seconda. “Therefore future studies could also consider these as well as supply chain and distribution impacts of food production.”
The authors also say it will be important to conduct further studies to confirm these results and to expand our understanding of how the entire food production lifecycle impacts sustainability.