Why do we eat what we eat?

If you care about the environment and the effect of our food choices, the article below is worth a read.

Written by Dr Alex Johnstone from Aberdeen University  

Sustainability – less is more!  Since 1960, the world’s population has doubled, increasing the demand for food and impacting on the climate and our ecosystems. There are concerns about current food consumption, particularly in the developed world, and its impact on health and the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of food production. The current diet is not sustainable for either public health or the environment. As previously discussed in week one, the diet of the UK population is failing to meet dietary recommendations, with high intakes of saturated fat, sugar, and salt and low intakes of fruit and vegetables.

It is estimated that 70,000 premature deaths a year in the UK could be avoided if the population met energy and nutrient recommendations.  

Today, I would like to particularly consider the impact of current dietary patterns on the environment. It’s estimated that 18% to 20% of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions come from the food chain – from production, processing, transport, storage, consumption, and food waste. With increasing recognition of the environmental impact of food and drink, future food policy and dietary advice need to go beyond the traditional focus on nutrient recommendations for health to include wider issues of sustainability.

Current dietary advice is based on nutrient recommendations for health. These recommendations have been translated by the Food Standards Agency into a health education tool for public, known as the Eatwell Plate, which illustrates the proportions of major food groups that should be included in a healthy diet.

Much of the debate about the environmental impact of the diet has focused on reducing meat consumption and the role of vegetarian or plant-based diet, with a consensus that a diet lower in meat would be beneficial for both health and in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Why is this?

Cows are fed grass and grain to produce red meat and milk, and they naturally produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas which is harmful for the environment. From a health perspective, the World Cancer Research Fund recommendations for cancer prevention encourage people to limit the consumption of red meat to less than 500 grams a week with emphasis on reducing processed meat, like sausages.

The results, based on our research data, estimate that meat and meat dishes account for approximately half of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the diet. While this is likely to be an over estimation of the real figure, it confirms previous reports that meat, as well as dairy products, are one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK diet.

There are many other environmental and ethical factors that need to be considered. It is not just as simple as substituting meat and dairy products for non-meat and non-dairy products. From a cultural perspective, expecting the UK population to become vegetarian is unrealistic. Only 5% of adults surveyed were vegetarian or vegan, and that was 2% in 2008-2009.

With a majority of these people eating dairy, vegetarians abstain from the consumption of meat. That’s red meat, poultry, seafood, and the flesh of any other animal, and may also include abstention from by-products of animal slaughter driven by health-related, political, environmental, cultural, aesthetic or economic beliefs. Dietary vegans also additionally refrain from consuming animal products – not only meat, but also eggs, dairy products, and other animal-derived substances, and may extend the philosophy into other areas of their lives and oppose the use of animals and animal products for any purpose.


The aim to achieve sustainable food production should be to try and reduce the population’s consumption of meat and meat products through smaller portions and better quality meat – quality, not quantity. But even this is likely to be a substantial challenge.  

Another approach to improve health and environment could be to reduce the amount of meat and ready to eat supermarket meals like curry or stew, substituting it for a greater proportion of vegetables and starchy food. This could be done in a step-wise fashion, with reformulation of foods phased in over time, a process currently being adopted to reduce the salt content of processed food in the UK.

This approach allows the consumer to adjust to small changes at a time, which is thought to be more successful. It is anticipated that a range of marketing and pricing strategies will be needed to help drive any change. In summary, the food we eat has a massive impact not just on our health, but also the health of our planet. If we adapt our diet slightly, we can make a positive change for ourselves and for nature.

To conclude, I would like to highlight the World Wildlife Fund advice on how to eat healthfully and sustainably. They have developed the Livewell Principles to consider – eat more plants, enjoy vegetables and whole grains, eat a variety of foods, have a colourful plate, waste less food. One third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.

Moderate your meat consumption, both red and white. Enjoy other sources of protein, such as peas, beans, and nuts. Buy food that meets a credible certified standard. Consider responsibly sourced, free range and fair trade options.

Eat fewer foods high in fat, salt, and sugar. Keep food, such as cakes, sweets, and chocolate, as well as cured meat, fries, and crisps, to an occasional treat. Choose water. Avoid sugary drinks. And remember that juices only count as one of your five a day, however much you drink.