Eating habits of white individuals disproportionately affect the environment as their foods require more water and release more greenhouse gases during production, a study claims. The study, published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, takes an in-depth look at what different demographic populations eat, how much greenhouse gas those foods are responsible for, and how much land and water they require.
The study was undertaken to get a better understanding of the environmental impacts of the food consumption patterns of major demographic groups so that environmental policies designed to reduce negative impacts of food production could be drafted that take these differences into account. “The food pipeline — which includes its production, distribution and waste — contributes significantly to climate change through the production of greenhouse gases and requires significant amounts of water and land, which also has environmental effects,” said Joe Bozeman, a student in the University of Illinois at Chicago in the US.
“If we are to draft policies related to food, they can’t be one-size-fits-all policies because different populations have different eating patterns which have their own unique impacts on the environment,” said Bozeman. Researchers analysed data on per capita food consumption estimates for more than 500 types of food, and environmental impact of these foods.
Foods considered ‘environmentally intense,’ include those that require more water, land and energy and produce more greenhouse gases than other foods. Apples, potatoes, beef and milk are among the most environmentally intense foods. Researchers found that white individuals produced an average of 680 kilogrammes of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide each year that can be directly linked to what they ate and drank, while Latinx individuals produced 640 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide and blacks produced 600 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide each year.
“While the difference may not be enormous, these numbers are per individual, and when you add up all those individuals, it’s very clear that whites are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gases emitted as a result of their food choices,” Bozeman said. The researchers also found that the food habits of white people require about seven per cent more water at 328,000 litres per year than Latinx individuals.
Black’s eating habits depend on about 12 per cent more land than other populations, which Bozeman said is driven in part by their higher consumption of chicken and apples, which are high land-use food items. “Whites tend to drink more water and milk. Milk itself requires a lot of water to produce when you consider livestock cultivation, so that is part of what we think is pushing their water impacts higher,” he said.
Policies that attempt to reduce resource dependence or greenhouse gases need to also take into account individual nutrients, said Bozeman. “If you are going to draft policies that may reduce the amount of land-intensive oranges, we need to think about other less resource-intensive sources of vitamin C,” said Bozeman.
“It gets more complex as you look closely at the food pipeline and how different populations engage with it, but we are now starting to get a better understanding on these complex dynamics in such a way that we can begin to rationally take steps to improve environmental quality,” he added.
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