Thank you for being here: if you've landed on this post about nutrition and the environment, you probably care about our planet and are trying to live sustainably. In this article, I would like to show you how you can protect the environment every day, simply and incidentally, with your diet. So what do nutrition and the environment have to do with each other? How high are the emissions and the "water footprint" caused by food production? How much land is actually needed to grow meat? Which foods are sustainable?
With every bite we eat, we ingest a piece of the environment. The extent to which we protect or pollute our habitat depends entirely on our choice of food. Many vegan foods are environmentally friendly and sustainable, especially in comparison to meat and dairy products.
The difference in raw material consumption between plant-based and animal-based foods is enormous. The use of arable land, Water and fuels, as well as the CO2-emissions can be greatly reduced through a vegan diet. In the following, we look at the differences in food production in terms of resource consumption, acreage, water and emissions. Nutrition and the environment are therefore closely linked.
In the separate Article "Making nutrition sustainable" you will find specific tips for reducing your diet-related ecological footprint.
Resource input - environmental impact in comparison
70 % of the crops grown are not grown for humans as end consumers, but as feed for livestock. The land used for animal feed and pasture occupies around 30 % of our entire planet.₁ If this land were used to grow nutrient-rich, vegan foods such as kale, buckwheat, hemp and linseed, we could provide significantly more people with more nutrients.
According to information from the US Department of Agriculture, it would be possible to feed 900 million people a vegetarian diet with the grain fed to farm animals. That's 2.7 times as many people as live in the USA.₂
Furthermore, on average, it takes around 16 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef.₃ Feeding 100 calories of crops to animals gives us between 17 and 30 calories of meat in return.₄ That's like eating 1 kilo of oatmeal and throwing away 2 kilos. That's crazy and anything but sustainable and environmentally friendly. These ratios are frightening when you consider that 795 million People do not have enough food available that is around 10 % of the global population. According to Welthungerhilfe, a child under the age of 5 dies from malnutrition or undernourishment approximately every 10 seconds.₅
The Earth Overshoot Day is earlier and earlier from year to year. It shows when the resources that grow back within a year are used up. This year, Earth Overshoot Day was on August 2 in summer, whereas in 1990 it was on December 7, and in 2005 on October 20.₆ At the same time, global meat production almost doubled between 1990 and 2017.₇ Due to the inefficient production in animal husbandryimportant resources are consumed that we do not actually possess. This comparison shows how closely our diet and the environment are linked.
With regard to resources, I would also like to mention fossil fuels. For millions of years, solar energy has been stored in the form of coal or oil and is therefore available to us today. Within less than 100 years, however, we have already used up large parts of the deposits, so according to scientists, our "solar energy savings account" will be depleted within the next few decades.
Environmental impact Emissions and greenhouse effect
There are three types of greenhouse gases: Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. In Germany, a full 58 % of methane emissions and 81 % of nitrous oxide emissions came from agriculture in 2015. Agriculture is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases, with only the combustion of coal, oil and gas producing more emissions.₈
The global warming potential of methane is approximately 21-25 times higher than that of carbon dioxide.₉,₁₀ The high global warming potential makes it important to monitor methane emissions. The largest proportion of methane is produced in the digestion of ruminants, i.e. mainly cows and sheep.
A study by the Öko-Institut compared different eating styles and came to the conclusion that a vegan diet produces the least CO2e emissions produced.₁₁₁
Are regional and seasonal foods an option for reducing the ecological footprint? Around 11 % of a food's greenhouse gas emissions are caused by transportation, whereas 83 % are generated during production.₁₂ The sustainable production of food should therefore be a priority. And if, for example, beef from Germany was produced with soy from Argentina - is it still a regional food? As you can see, it makes sense to look out for regional and seasonal food, but what's on your plate is what counts.
So it's best to eat lots of Fruit and vegetablesI like to buy organic fruit, grains, seeds and kernels, as these are produced with relatively few harmful substances and are often grown regionally. I like to go to a special fruit and vegetable market, as I often get regional organic quality here and it's even plastic-free. So that you don't need a bag, you can buy Get a fruit and vegetable bag here.
Eating vegan and reducing agricultural land
The WWF has compared the carbon footprint of a hamburger with fries and salad with that of vegan pasta with tomato sauce. The total land footprint of the burger is 3.61 m². Of this, the meat accounts for 3.38 m², which corresponds to 94 % of the total amount. The area required for the pasta with tomato sauce is 0.46 m².₁₃ This shows that the area required for meat is much higher compared to plant-based foods.
Through a Rising world population the demand for agricultural land and living space is also increasing. However, the size of our planet is limited and valuable rainforest land is already being cut down in order to grow more food. In South America, for example, soybean cultivation is one of the main reasons for the Deforestation. Around 90 % of the world's soy production is used as feed in factory farming.
Grazing land and animal feed cultivation account for 70 % of agricultural land worldwide.₁₄ In the European Union too, 60 % of the grain grown is used as animal feed. Due to the increasing production of animal feed, arable farming is becoming more and more industrialized. As a result, more and more monocultures are being created and more pesticides and fertilizers are being used.
Both nutrition and the environment suffer as a result of monocultures. Soils lose important nutrients. However, good soil is the basis for nutrient-rich food. According to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, 45 % of European arable soils show a loss of quality.₁₅
A sensible solution would be to grow nutrient-rich plants on as little land as possible and increasingly avoid animal products. After all, it is not the quantity of food but the quality that determines the supply of nutrients. This means that we don't necessarily have to grow more food, but the right food. In the best case scenario, nutrient-rich plants are consumed directly by humans. This is because a reduction in the production of animal foods would disproportionately reduce overall food production. This makes it easier to maintain fallow periods in which soils can recover and thus increase the future quality of our food.
Reduce water consumption with a vegan diet
We take access to water for granted. However, 1 in 6 people on earth have to live without regular access to drinkable water. But let's take a closer look: 75 % of the earth is covered with water, but only 2.5 % of it is fresh water. Only 30 % of this is available to us, as the remaining 70 % is in glaciers and snow cover. This means that only 0.3 % of the total amount of water remains as clean and available drinking water. An astonishing 80 % of water consumption is accounted for by agriculture and animal husbandry. Livestock farming accounts for the majority of this, as animals drink and water is used for feed production. It is estimated that around 0.08 % of the world's water remains for use in private households.₁₆
By 2025, it is expected that around 64 % of the world's population will live in water-scarce areas.₁₇ A frightening idea and reason enough for me to pay attention to my water consumption. On the one hand, of course, I do this in the shower, when brushing my teeth or washing the dishes. But what's on the plate is also crucial.
We need an average of 1,644 liters of water for one kilo of grain.₁₈ Converted, that's almost 13 bathtubs full of water. Not even that little, in my opinion. For one kilogram of beef, however, you need around 118 bathtubs full of water. That's almost ten times as much water as cereals. Vegan foods also perform better when comparing water input to protein output.
When you consider that a balanced mix of vegetables, grains and pulses can replace the nutrients of meat, it becomes clear that a vegan diet is an almost inevitable option to use water efficiently and sustainably and to avoid a future that we are facing. Water shortage to prevent or at least reduce.
Update: Comparison of milk and plant drinks
A new study by Poore and Nemecek entitled "Reducing food's environmental impacts through producers and consumers" examines the ecological footprint of different diets, foods and production methods. To my knowledge, this is the largest and most up-to-date study on the subject of nutrition and its ecological impact.
One particularly important point is the comparison of vegan plant-based drinks or milk substitutes and cow's milk. Cow's milk performs worse than the plant-based alternatives in all areas of the ecological comparison. The oat drink is particularly sustainable. However, you can also make your own nut milk, for example a delicious Macadamia milk.
All in all, the vegan diet is also presented as very ecologically sustainable in this study. Of course, there are foods such as cocoa or avocado that perform rather poorly in comparison with various animal products. However, the average amounts of cocoa and avocado consumed are rather small and therefore the lesser of two evils. And apart from that, vegans probably eat about as much avocado and cocoa as mixed dieters. Switching from cow's milk to plant-based drinks is already a big first step for the environment.
Connection between nutrition and the environment
Nutrition and the environment are closely linked. Environmental impact could be an important aspect of your food choices in the future. Of course, there are many others such as health and performance, moral values, taste and availability. We should put more emphasis on the environment again so that we can continue to live in a balanced eco-system.
For me, the topic of the environment was also "far away" for a long time and I didn't feel affected by it. After all, we don't have much to do with hunger or water shortages here in Germany. And it's easy and convenient to ignore things that don't directly affect you and that you don't see directly. I was also unaware of the link between food and the environment for a long time. In the long term, however, our behavior towards the environment will catch up with us, so we need to change our behavior now and learn to take a long-term approach. sustainable nutrition.
So what can you do now to improve your diet and the environment at the same time? Try to consume more consciously and question the food on your plate. Increase the proportion of vegetables and reduce meat and dairy products.
All the best,
PS: In case you've scrolled down this far: I still have the article for you Vegan living - tips & tricks to help you switch to a vegan diet so that the contents of your plate are also sustainable. Have fun!
₂ U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Statistics, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2001