11. All states shall incorporate environmental considerations in developing national dietary food guides

A) Rapporteur: Danny Harvey

A continuous, increasing shift to plant-based diets over time would confer multiple environmental and health benefits, and is a pre-requisite to longterm sustainability, but can only be expected to occur as part of a broader and gradual process of social and environmental enlightenment. Incorporation of environmental consideration in national dietary food guides would lead to a greater emphasis on plant-based foods, in turn influencing dietary decisions and contributing to this long term transition.

B) Rapporteur: Metta Spencer

National food guides are a current manifestation of a discussion that has gone on since prehistoric times, for almost all of us hold strong convictions about what to eat. (The Greek geometer Pythagoras admonished his followers never to eat beans.) For a potentially helpful food guide, see the 2019 Canadian list1), which recommends: “Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods. Choose protein foods that come from plants more often.”

This official promotion of plant foods reflects the well-founded new emphasis on the effects of dietary choices on the environment. Such a concise list is all the advice that most people need in order to make responsible food choices. If, however, you want to look more deeply into the grounds for choosing particular foods, you will find a complex set of considerations, not all of which yield compatible recommendations.

Dietary choices have far-reaching impacts on our physical and ecological environment, health, economy, cultural traditions and the use of water, energy, and land. Much depends on the technologies that are used to produce the food and bring it to the dinner table. Fortunately, greater efficiencies are being invented that can enable most producers to conserve all these resources. For example, where a farm’s soil is being blown or washed away, or where its waterways are being polluted and eutrophying from the use of chemical fertilizers, the farmers can simply adopt such innovations as no-till agriculture, biochar, composts, and other organic farming practices. Food producers and retailers can adopt numerous simple, achievable solutions at many phases in the supply chain of their product.

Consumers, on the other hand, have less access to the information required for making good choices when grocery shopping. Yes, in general it is better to eat plants rather than animal products, but this maxim is based on estimating the average effects of various foods. Still, not all packages of the same product, side by side on the grocery shelf, cause equal amounts of greenhouse gas. Indeed, the variations in producing any specific food may differ enormously.2) For instances, if two bins of apples or potatoes come from different sources, they may have been grown, packaged, transported, and refrigerated in very different ways, so one bin of them may be a vastly better environmental choice than the other. Unfortunately, you cannot discover all those differences just by looking at the apples or potatoes. Indeed, your information is so limited that it is probably more efficient just to follow your national food guide and hope for the best. But here it’s worth discussing some examples of the complexities that may be involved.

Take the growing use of palm oil in food and household products. In Indonesia and Malaysia, jungles and carbon-rich peatlands are being replaced by monocultural plantations — palm trees — grown for their oil. Biodiversity is being destroyed as a result of the loss of habitat of thousands of animal and plant species. For instance, our cousins the Bornean Orangutans, as well as the Sumatran Rhino and Sumatran Elephant, may become extinct. Yet palm oil is in about half of all packaged products in grocery stores. It is in snack foods like ice cream, candy, and instant noodles. It is in laundry detergent, toothpaste and shampoo. Palm oil has become the most widely used vegetable oil on Earth.3)

Or take almonds, for another complex issue. Almonds are a highly nutritious plant food that every dietary guide would promote. In fact, eating a handful of almonds four or five times a week will lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, if those are your problems.4) Many people buy almond milk now as an environmentally friendly substitute for cow’s milk.

California’s Central Valley produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds5) and, unfortunately, California has an ongoing shortage of water. Each nut takes a gallon of water to produce, and the orchards use almost ten percent of the state’s annual agricultural water – more than what the entire population of Los Angeles and San Francisco use.6) So there is a trade-off between health and at least one environmental challenge. Should we be eating almonds? The national dietary guides do not mention either palm oil or almonds, so we are left to make these choices independently.

National diets always do reflect national cultures and traditions. Thus the 2019 Canadian guide does not urge people to drink cows’ blood, as the Masaai tribes in Africa do, almost painlessly collecting the blood without killing their cattle.7) Nor does the Canadian guide yet recommend the consumption of insects or mealworms, though these are both extremely efficient end-products of converting garbage into high-quality protein.8) (If you want to know what various bugs taste like without trying any yourself, read these reports9).)

No one in the supermarket can help you select potatoes or apples wisely, but a growing field of science, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), is beginning to quantify the average impacts of various foods on the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, as well as the appropriateness of their land and energy use. They do this by summing up the multiple impacts throughout the “life cycle” of each food – before it is planted until it is finally consumed.

One such study by Carlsson-Kanyama compared the typical life cycle of carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, pork, rice, and dry peas consumed in Sweden. For example, when calculating the impact of pork, she counted up the effects of using electricity, fuel, and refrigeration coolants in producing and transporting fertilizers; crop farming; drying of crops for the pig food, extraction of oil, producing of fodder, rearing of pigs and storing their manure, slaughtering and cutting them, selling pork at the retailer, transporting to the consumer, cooking, cleaning, and disposing of the garbage. She also included the greenhouse gases emitted through producing and transporting the pesticides, seeds and manure, and producing of such inputs as machinery, buildings, equipment, and services. All of these numbers need to be added together to get a good estimate of pork’s greenhouse gas emissions, which can then be compared to similar estimates for other foods.

We are often advised now to “eat locally,” to avoid the greenhouse gas emissions that result from transporting food long distances. Carlsson-Kanyama found, however, that transporting the food to market is a fairly large component of the energy use, but a small component of the total greenhouse gas resulting from the pork industry. To be sure, energy consumption is important, and so is land use, but there are more factors involved in greenhouse gas emission figures. Indeed, some decisions along the supply chain may even require choosing between minimizing energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

Carlsson-Kanyama found that current food consumption patterns in Sweden and other developed countries exceed the level of sustainability by at least a factor of four. Regrettably, the prospects for achieving sustainable food consumption seem questionable.10) She also showed that the greenhouse gas emissions were highest for pork and rice and lowest for potatoes, carrots, and dry peas.11)

That pork is high will surprise no one familiar with current national diet guides, since it is the product of animals. And pork is a less serious source of greenhouse gas than beef or lamb, for pigs are not ruminants and therefore do not emit as much methane while living.

On the other hand, rice is also a high source of greenhouse gas, though it is a plant. Rice is cultivated in paddies that must be flooded at times during the growing season. This flooding creates an environment for microbes that produce a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, methane, as well as large amounts of another serious gas, nitrous oxide. It had previously been estimated that 2.5 percent of human-induced climate warming can be attributed to rice farming. This is a serious challenge, since rice provides more calories to the global population than any other food.

Out of concern to reduce these emissions, some researchers recommend flooding rice paddies only intermittently. Unfortunately, new research indicates that this only worsens the matter, and that the impact of rice cultivation is twice as bad for global warming as previously believed.12) Perhaps Swedes will change from eating rice to potatoes, peas, and carrots, but the culture of India uses rice as a staple, so the prospects for alternative food choices in Asia seem remote.

Millet – which is nearly as high in protein as wheat – may be the most climate-friendly grain, although its cultivation has declined worldwide over the past 50 years. It is a C4 plant, which means that it uses a different enzyme for carbon fixation than C3 plants (that is, most other grains), thereby improving water efficiency.13) Other edible grasses related to millet are sorghum and teff.

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1) Government of Canada, “Food Guide Canada,” Jan 2019.

2) Richard Young, “Claims Against Meat Fail to Consider Bigger Picfture”, Resilience, originally published by Sustainable Food Trust) June 22, 2018.

3) Rainforest Action Network, “Conflict Palm Oil”

4) Resp o Rate online blog

5) Tom Philpott and Julia Lurie, “Here’s the Real Problem with Almonds,” The New Republic, Dec. 31, 2016.


11) ibid.

7) For a video showing this procedure, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cP4UMYBEyzY

8) Aerin Einstein-Curtis, “Canadian Start-up Turns to Bugs to Recycle Food Waste into Feed”, Feed Navigator.com See also, Thomas Suen, “Essence of Cockroach”, Reuters, Aug 10, 2018

9) Danielle Martin, “What Do Bugs Taste Like, Anyway?” The Huffington Post, July 18, 2011. Also see AlyMoore, “What Do Insects Taste Like?” Bugible.com

10) Annika Carlsson-Kanyama, “Climate Change and Dietary Choices: How Can Emissions of Greenhouse Gases from Food Consumption be Reduced?” Food Policy, Vol. 23,NO/3/4, pp. 277-293, 1998.

12) Josh Gabbatiss, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/rice-farming-climate-change-global-warming-india-nitrous-oxide-methane-a8531401.html|“Rice farming up to twice as bad for climate change as previously thought, study reveals”]], The Independent, Sept. 10, 2018.

13) Wikipedia, “Millet”, viewed 28 May 2019.

14) Poore and T. Nemecek, “Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers”, Science, 01 June 2018. Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 987-992.

15) Tim Worstall, “It Does Not Take 7 kg of Grain to Make 1 kg of Beef: Be Very Careful With Your Statistics”, Forbes, Sept. 3, 2012.

16) Josh Gabbatiss, “Feeding Cows Seaweed Cuts 99% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Their Burps, Research Finds”, The Independent, May 25, 2018.

17) Roonal Pritam Kataria, “Use of Feed Additives for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Dairy Farms,” Microbiology Research, 2015, Volume 6:6120, p.23.

18) “Growing meat in the lab: Scientists initiate Chalmers University of Technology (7 September 2011) ?action plan to advance cultured meat”, Science Daily, 2011.

19) “Raising animals for meat creates lots of problems. Lab-grown meat could provide solutions”

20) BMC Medicine, “Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition”, BMC Medicine 2013 11:63. March 7, 2013.

21) Michael Mosley, How safe is eating meat? BBC Horizon, 18 Aug 2014.

22) Prabhat Jha, in a video of his lecture to Science for Peace “How to Live Forever”, Jan 17, 2018.

23) Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield, Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment, (Amazon, 2016). See also Savory’s famous TED talk, “How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change”

24) George Monbiot, “Eat More Meat and Save the Word: The Latest Implausible Farming Miracle.” The Guardian, Aug 4, 2014.

25) Harriet Friedmann’s video conversation with Metta Spencer, “Biodiversity and Food”

26) Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “Can Dirt Save the Earth?” The New York Times Magazine, April 18, 2018.

27) Ross Andersen, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park”, The Atlantic, April 2017.

28) See a marvelous documentary video about this project in the article itself. Also a TED talk about the Zimovs, [https://www.youtu.be/wO0wyICAAqg]

29) Andersen, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park”, op.cit.

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