How Sustainable is a Plant-Based Diet?

What we eat each day has a significant impact our own health and the health of the planet. With a rising interest in climate change over recent years, a common question often asked is – what is the most sustainable diet for the planet? 

A sustainable diet can be defined as one that is nutritious and healthful and has the lowest impact on the environment and food supply1.

There is no hard and fast rule about what makes a diet sustainable. However, some food items do have a larger environmental impact than others. Therefore, reducing some of these high-impact foods can help to minimise our own environmental footprint on the planet.

Why is a sustainable food supply important?

By 2050, it is estimated that the world will reach a population of 10 billion2.

Having a sustainable food system is essential. Firstly, it is important we provide enough high quality, nutritious food to the growing population. This will help to create a healthy population and minimise the risk of disease. Secondly, the current food system is not conducive to maintaining the health of the planet. A new food system must be able to help reduce the impact on environmental change.

There are many things that need to be considered when deciding whether a diet is sustainable or not1. These include…

  • improving overall population health
  • nutrient availability of foods
  • protecting biodiversity
  • limiting harm on the ecosystem
  • minimising cost

Could plant-based diets be the answer?

Significant amounts of scientific evidence continue to link dietary patterns with health outcomes and environmental sustainability. Despite this, there have been limited global efforts to shift towards sustainable food production.

However, in 2019 a group of 37 scientists from 16 countries around the world formed the Eat-Lancet Commission3. This scientific group developed targets for our food systems to prevent environmental change3. In addition to targeting sustainable food production, the group also looked at the best diet for planetary health.

The commission encourages a flexible dietary pattern that largely consists of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils3. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry; and includes no or low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar and refined grains3.

According to the commission, this dietary pattern is not only good for the planet but incurs many health benefits.

How do animal products have an environmental impact?

Animal foods can still be consumed in a sustainable diet, however most research highlights that these foods should be heavily limited1,3. It is widely recognised that agriculture is one of the largest causes of global environmental change. These changes include climate change, deforestation, desertification and damage to marine ecosystems1.

There are multiple factors contributing to this issue. They include…

  • land use
  • overfishing
  • methane production from farm animals
  • water usage to grow crops and feed livestock

In 2014, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations noted that livestock made up 14.5% of all human-induced emissions4.

Food production has also led to the majority (60%) of the world’s fish stocks to be fully fished or overfished5.

Reducing our environmental impact requires a multifaceted approach. It requires a cultural shift to reduce our dietary reliance on animal products and promote the consumption of more plant-based foods. It is also essential that strategies focus on improving agriculture and farming practices, protecting natural ecosystems and reducing food waste.

The Bottom Line

Having a healthy yet sustainable food system in Australia requires a strong collaboration between government, the private and public sector and individuals. It is important to know that as people, our food choices have a significant impact on ourselves and the planet. Following a primarily plant-based diet is best for health, the environment and the planet.

Kiah Paetz

Disclaimer: The information provided on Nuzest is for educational and informational purposes only. The information provided on this site is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional advice or care. Please speak to your qualified healthcare professional in the event that something you have read here raises questions or concerns regarding your health.