How your choice of food affects the planet: study

The recent analysis of nearly 99% of all land- and sea-based food production reveals the ecological impact of the food we consume.

Environmentally conscious consumers may be already aware that beef consumption contributes to deforestation, fish farms pollute the water, and almonds are a water-intensive crop.

However, a study published on Monday takes a much broader and deeper approach, providing a new framework for assessing the overall ecological effects of crops, livestock, and seafood.

Researchers gathered information on food production’s effects on the planet, such as disruptions to the habitats of wild animals, water use and pollution, and contribution to global warming. Their research identifies the regions and food production practises that have the biggest impacts.

According to the study’s lead author, Ben Halpern, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, it offers a new way to assess what to eat and how to feed the world as looked at nearly 99% of all food production on land and sea as reported to the United Nations in 2017.

“We need to be thinking about the multiple ways that food affects the environment,” Halpern, who directs UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, told the Washington Post.

“The results we’ve presented show how you can use more information about these multiple stressors and the global scale of our food production consequences to influence your individual choice.”

Food harvested by hunters and in backyard gardens was not included, nor were non-food crops like coffee, tea, and tobacco.

However, they looked at effects of displacing ecosystems for cropland and destroying seafloor habitat with fishing gear, as well as water used by crops and livestock, nutrient pollution of waterways from fertiliser-tainted runoff and concentrated faecal matter, and greenhouse gas emissions from farming equipment and boat engines, fertiliser and pesticide production, as well as livestock flatulence and manure.

Given that cattle have a significant influence on greenhouse gas emissions and pigs have an impact on water quality, it is not surprising that pig and cattle meat scored far ahead of any other items. Pork, however, may have higher environmental consequences than beef due to the amount of pig faeces that ends up contaminating waterways.

Algal blooms in streams are a result of nutrient pollution from fertilisers and animal manure, which can eventually result in “dead zones” of water with little or no dissolved oxygen.

The environmental harm connected with these kinds of foods was increased by the researchers’ inclusion of any plant or other animal used to provide feed for livestock and fish.


The study raises concerns about the sustainability of seafood because it shows that it has a disproportionately large impact both on land and off our coasts. Despite only producing 1.1 percent of the world’s food, aquatic systems are responsible for 9.9 percent of the food system’s overall environmental impact.

Because the habitat along the seafloor is destroyed by the trawls used to gather them, a group of species that includes cod, flounder, and halibut had an environmental impact that was more than four times greater than that of other fish. Although that form of fishing produced four times more food than sheep ranching does, the study found that the environmental impact was three times greater.

One researcher who was not engaged in the study claimed that its methodology offers a “comprehensive” analysis that surpasses previous efforts to measure environmental pressures, most of which focused solely on land- or sea-based consequences, rather than both.

Rice, wheat, and other crops

Because it takes so much water to grow the grains, rice and wheat were rated in the same category as animal-based items like cow milk and chicken meat. Additionally, because they are cultivated in such vast amounts throughout the world, the disruptions they cause to ecology and natural environments are amplified.

Other examples of plant-based food items whose effects parallel those of some animal-based goods because they are grown and consumed so widely include crops used to make cooking oils, such as palm and canola, the study found.

A crop like papaya, on the other hand, requires a lot of resources, but because it is farmed on a very small scale, Halpern said, its impact is little.

Half of the global food footprint comes from five countries

Nearly half of all effects on the food system are attributable to five countries: India, China, the United States, Brazil, and Pakistan.

Researchers also discovered that certain countries produce the same sorts of food with greater environmental impact than others, in addition to the fact that this harm is disproportionately concentrated in a small number of countries. 

For instance, although producing 10% less meat than the US, Brazil’s beef business has a greater environmental impact than that of the US cattle industry.

Halpern expressed his hope that the study would encourage more people and decision-makers to think about methods to lessen the negative environmental effects of food choices and regulations.

Although the various ecological pressures are taken into account equally in the analysis, future usage of the data and research methodologies may give one sort of pressure a higher priority based on the environmental difficulties that are being addressed, he said.

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