Eating according to geography and season could be key to sustainable diets
Image credit: Nadine Primeau | Unsplash
Environmentally sensitive, optimised diets related to location and season could help drive more sustainable eating habits, according to a new tool developed by researchers.
It is widely accepted that in order to improve our own health and the health of the planet, human dietary habits need to change.
As the composition of an optimal diet changes depending on the combination of location, season, and personalised dietary needs, researchers at the Institute of Environmental Engineering ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, have developed a tool that uses an extensive database of food items, nutrients and associated environmental impact to develop optimised diets specific to any individual in a given country and month.
The tool could be used to develop personalised, healthy, low-impact diets for people around the world. Increasing disease rates due to poor eating habits, with the attendant rise in the cost of providing necessary medical care for the effects caused by poor diet, could also be countered if more people adopted a tailored approach to food consumption.
The methodology behind the research was to build a database of over 500 items, which also included several life-cycle stages of each food item and calculated the environmental impact depending on the geographical location from which each item is typically sourced.
The researchers used their method to compare what low-impact diets would look like depending on country (Switzerland vs. Spain); season (August vs. February); sex; the inclusion of dietary supplements, and for different diet types and environmental impacts (specifically climate change and biodiversity loss).
The results indicated that, while the test optimised diets were broadly similar, there were marked differences in the detailed composition depending on country, season and impact considered, especially regarding legume choice.
The lowest impact diet contained local and imported foods, as well as fish. Vegan diets had the lowest impact only when incorporating a supplement to meet nutrient needs.
"Managing to consume a diet that meets your specific nutrient needs and reduces disease risk, while also considering the many layers of environmental impacts associated with your food choices can be overwhelming," said Christie Walker, PhD, lead author of the study.
"This tool was developed to guide individuals in building their own personal diets that are both healthy and low impact for climate change and biodiversity, while taking into account the many stages of a food's life cycle."
The researchers findings were published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.
Feeding the planet's burgeoning population is increasingly a serious challenge, pushing the Earth's existing resources to breaking point.
In 2019, Our World in Data reported that food production is responsible for approximately a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and that the largest contributor is the livestock and fisheries sector. The idea of encouraging populations to adopt a diet of locally sourced, seasonal food in order to reduce CO2 emissions is a recurrent theme.
Tackling world hunger without also increasing the intensive farming practices and distribution logistics that cause environmental damage, resulting in the release of vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and harming biodiversity, is one of humankind's primary concerns today and is a question being addressed by engineering and technology solutions.
Potential solutions being explored, to a greater or lesser degree, include 3D printing food (technically 2.5D printing) and adapting the science behind growing plants in space to also assist the Earth-bound population.
Robotics are also increasingly an important aspect of food production and harvest, with much research going into developing farming robots that can enhance the productivity of the human workforce, such as the delicate job of picking soft fruits and vegetables; planting cuttings; controlling disease, and assisting in the breeding process.
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