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News Article

Healthy diet and healthy planet?


Healthier diets save emissions from the health care sector as well as food production finds study

Can we actually do ourselves and the planet a favour by shifting dietary patterns to less meat? The latest study to weigh in on this concludes that yes we can. Unlike some previous studies this one tries to integrate effects on the food and the health systems. Even so it cannot predict what might happen with the monetary saving to the health system and how that impacts greenhouse emissions.

Generally the food system accounts for about 20-30% greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions according to CCAFS, while health care sector is estimated to account for 10% of GHG emissions in the USA so any reductions in these systems could have substantial effects. Most previous studies on diet choice just examine the effects on emissions from food production (see Further Reading) and many advocate less meat in the diet as a result. Some studies link diet, food production emissions and disease. One study last year from the UK estimated a lower carbon diet could reduce GHG emissions from food production by 17% and save almost 7 million years of life lost prematurely in the UK over the next 30 years and increase average life expectancy by over 8 months.

Hallström et al. used analyses of food production emissions combined with analyses of dietary impacts on (heart disease, colorectal cancer and diabetes) to predict the effects of three diet scenarios on greenhouse gas emissions. The diets progressively removed red meat and increases fruits and vegetables and pulse intake. Dairy, non-red meat and fish intake remain the same.

It comes up with some interesting figures:

“We found that adoption of healthier diets reduced the relative risk of coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes by 20–45%, US health care costs by US$B 77–93 per year, and direct GHGE by 222–826 kg CO2e capita−1 year−1 (69–84 kg from the health care system, 153–742 kg from the food system). Emission reductions were equivalent to 6–23% of the US Climate Action Plan’s target of a 17% reduction in 2005 GHGE by 2020, and 24–134% of California’s target of 1990 GHGE levels by 2020”

Other significant factors that could be addressed to reduce impacts of the food production chain include reducing the amount of food that is wasted, currently about 30%, food transportation and even methane production by ruminants via changes in feed.

A healthier US diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both the food and health care systems Hallström, E., Gee, Q., Scarborough, P. et al. Climatic Change (2017). doi:10.1007/s10584-017-1912-5