Eating a diet heavy in fruits, vegetables, and cereals isn’t just healthy for you — it’s also good for the environment, according to a recent study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The study confirms what numerous other studies have suggested — that energy-intensive products like meat, which requires large amounts of water, fertilized feed, and land, are bad for the environment. Emissions-wise, agriculture has surpassed deforestation in terms of its climate impact, and a large part of that is due to meat production, which is responsible for two-thirds of agriculture’s climate footprint. Compared to a vegan or vegetarian diet, a high-meat diet contributes almost twice as many emissions to the atmosphere.
But researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine weren’t interested in exploring a hypothetical world where everyone transitions to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Instead, they looked at current consumer behavior to pinpoint specific, manageable changes that could impact both consumer health and the health of the planet.
“In reality most people somewhere like the U.K. simply don’t want to become vegetarian,” James Milner, one of the study’s co-authors, told E&E News. “We wanted to model the health impacts because this would help us to understand the trade-offs between benefits for public health, benefits for the environment, and the likely public acceptability of the modeled diets as we progressively reduced the emissions.”
Researchers looked at data from 1,571 food diaries, recorded over a four-day period by adults in the U.K. They found that if the participants simply followed the World Health Organization’s dietary guidelines — which call for a varied diet “consisting mainly of plant food, and at least 400g of fruit and vegetable every day” — greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 17 percent, and average life expectancy could be increased by 12 months for men and four months for women. Modifying the average U.K. diet even further, the study found that making even minor changes to diets — including cutting back on meat and processed snacks — could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent.
The study found, however, that not all fruits and vegetables are created equal in the eyes of environmental impact. Vegetables tended to be associated with lower emissions than fruits, and tomatoes were a particularly emissions-intensive food.
“One thing which was interesting was that to achieve really large GHG emission reductions, it’s better to make up your total fruit and vegetable consumption with a greater proportion of vegetables,” Milner said, adding that emissions were found to vary within both fruits and vegetables. “I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that people shouldn’t eat fruit!” he said.
While a diet high in fruits and vegetables might be healthier and less emissions-intensive, it does come with its own concerns. Global food waste creates more greenhouse gas emissions than most countries, according to the U.N., and a large part of food waste comes from fruits and vegetables. The European Union wastes 50 percent of its produce, and 13 percent of that waste happens at the consumer level. Exacting aesthetic standards for produce also contribute to food waste — the U.N. Environment Program estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of produce is simply thrown away by farmers because it doesn’t fit supermarket standards of beauty. Some grocery chains have attempted to reverse this trend by selling ugly but edible produce at reduced rates, making produce less wasteful and more accessible to low-income families.