Avoiding sweets and fried food could help save the planet, scientists say

ADELAIDE, Australia — In order to save the environment, and our health, a new study argues that people should give up all the sweet and fried foods they love so much. Researchers in Australia and New Zealand conclude that the production of unhealthy foods (or junk food) has a negative effect on the Earth’s ecology as well as an eater’s health.

The team found sweets, pastries, processed meat, and fatty foods are all bad for the environment. They looked at 20 studies on the environmental impact of food consumption in Australia and New Zealand, finding that unhealthier foods produce more greenhouse gases.

Manufacturers need to use more land and water to create processed and fatty foods in comparison to healthier alternatives. The meat industry also emits a lot of greenhouse gases as well. Water, energy, and pesticides are common components in food production and packaging, which then release methane as they decompose in landfills.

Estimates show food production and consumption account for a quarter of all global emissions. Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, which has led to 60 percent of the world’s biodiversity being lost, and around two-thirds of the world’s freshwater being used for irrigation. Scientists add that many people eat more junk food than health officials in many countries recommend, contributing to pollution.

Junk food emits a third of food-related emissions

The Australian government notes their country emitted 510 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, with food emissions making up 14 percent of the total.

Food waste is responsible for six percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report published in 2017. Researchers say existing Australian government guidelines recommend daily servings of everyday staples such as fruit and vegetables, grains, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, and dairy products.

These “core foods” contribute to around two-thirds of food-related greenhouse gasses in Australia. Meanwhile sugary and fatty foods, which the researchers call “discretionary foods,” make up the other third of food-related emissions.

In New Zealand, the highest emitters are meat, seafood, and eggs — which make up 35 percent of all food emissions. Highly processed foods such as ice cream and pastries follow closely behind, making up 34 percent of food-related emissions.

‘Considering the planet as well as our health’

The study authors note that nutritional guidelines in New Zealand consider the environmental impacts of food, but those in Australia do not. They argue that Australian guidelines need changing to reflect the environmental impact of food, adding that the public should cut back on treats to save the planet.

“Discretionary foods have a higher cropland, water scarcity and ecological Footprint. Meat also emits greenhouse gases, although its water scarcity footprint is lower compared to dairy products, cereals, grains, fruit and vegetables,” says lead study author Sara Forbes in a university release.

“It is time we better acknowledged the environmental impacts of the type and amount of food we eat, considering the planet as well as our health,” the University of South Australia dietitian concludes.

“By 2050, the world’s population is projected to reach 10 billion people. There is no way we can feed that amount of people unless we change the way we eat and produce food.”

The findings appear in the journal Current Nutrition Reports.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.

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