Sustainability & the Food System 

     The food system is extensive in all regards.  It covers everything from raw ingredients, production, processing, distribution, and finally to the end consumer.  Over the past few years we’ve seen trends in the food world come and go, and one of the more recent and impactful is the plant-based vs carnivorous diet.  

     Plant-based living has become a phenomenon; everywhere you look it seems like more and more people are taking meat and animal products out of their diets and replacing them with plant-based alternatives.  The plant-based market has been growing exponentially and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be slowing down anytime soon.  With more and more consumers reaching out towards a plant-based diet, we hear why they’re choosing to go down this route.  “It’s healthier, it’s more nutritious, and most importantly, it’s sustainable.”  What does it mean when someone says something is ‘sustainable’?  Well, in regards to the food system and a plant-based diet, sustainability is generally defined as something that has long lasting, beneficial effects and can be maintained.  As we hear more about this sustainability push, we see more cause to abolish an animal-based diet. 

     In today’s article, I want to bring a better understanding of the different positives and negatives relating to both plant-based and animal-based products.    



     One of the leading reasons we hear about pursuing a plant-based diet is because it’s the more sustainable option.  Most vegans and vegetarians will tell you that consuming animal-based products isn’t sustainable due to the amount of greenhouse gasses it produces.  As time has gone on and more studies have surfaced, there’s been an understanding that greenhouse gasses and emissions given off via livestock have impacted the Earth and our natural resources.  The solution to this is a diet focusing mainly on plant agriculture including: nuts & seeds, fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.   The plant-based diet is said to be less taxing on our society, our earth, and our resources. 

     The GHGs (Greenhouse gasses) have been said to, “occur directly from carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use on the farm or in the supply chain, nitrous oxide emissions resulting from fertilizer application, and methane emissions from animals or indirectly as a result of land use change.”  With the massive amount of livestock used for producing animal-based products, we can see how these greenhouse gasses are being produced in uncontrollable numbers, putting the world and its population at risk.  Some studies even show that over time, with an increase in global population and a diet heavily based on animal products, our world will be put in unimaginable risk.  With the current rate of food consumption and environmental change, food sustainability is on a course for destruction.  The main principle to understand here is that the population is growing at an alarming rate, leading many to believe our current food system will not be able to keep up.



     The Food System has a few different segments relating to inputs and outputs.  For example, two inputs include: natural resources (land, sun, environment) and societal demands (trends, products wanted, desires).  Two of the outputs include: waste (emissions, gas, liquid harm) and of course, food (the product we consume).  Although food is the desired outcome of all of these inputs, some unfortunate outputs are also created in this process, which leads to our planet suffering in the long run.  There are a lot of unseen parts of the food system that go unnoticed.  Production, processing, transportation, storage, retail, and disposal practices, etc.  These are all contributors to output within the food system that can leave harmful effects years to come.  



     As we read previously, the plant-based diet is supposedly the better, healthier, and more sustainable diet for human consumption.  Unfortunately, as many statistics and facts provided, not all agree with that statement.  In this next segment we’re going to focus on what hidden realities are hiding behind this title of ‘A Sustainable Plant-Based Diet’.

     For starters, we’ve heard that beef, lamb, dairy, among others, are major contributors to greenhouse gases, which are known to hurt the environment.  However, for those opting out of consuming those products because of this sustainability issue, should also focus on the not-so-good effects of their plant-based counterparts.  Let’s take this into consideration:  A lot of the United States has harsh winters and springs, where we can’t grow enough crops to sustain life.  The few places that have temperatures year round to grow crops still can’t produce enough (and then distribute it) to keep this society afloat.  How do we then consume these plant-based meals if we can’t grow them in the place we live?  Well we would have to transport them from foreign countries, resulting in air fuel that can create more greenhouse gas emissions than any poultry, beef, or dairy product produced.  There are certain fruits that need a climate to grow.  For example, blueberries and strawberries are often imported into Europe, U.S., and other countries by air to fill that market when we’re not in season to produce those items.       

avocado, food, cut


     When most plant-based dieters take the dive into this lifestyle, they are leaving behind an incredible amount of nutrients and vitamins they must replace.  One of those foods that help replace some proteins, vitamins, and fatty acids include the avocado.  This incredible green luscious fruit is a staple ingredient in a lot of plant-based dishes.  What is an unfortunate truth about this avocado is the amount of water it takes to nurture an avocado tree.  It has been noted that one single tree in California needs close to 50 gallons of water, every day!  This is a stunning amount of water for these regions when during the summer months, their water system tends to dry up.  This puts an immense amount of pressure on local environments to keep producing a product that is now being consumed all over the world in record numbers.  This number equates to about 60 gallons of water per avocado, meaning if it doesn’t rain frequently, water must be taken from elsewhere.  When there is a drought, water must be taken from somewhere and in most instances, it is taken illegally.  It has been known for people to illegally extract water from rivers to help grow these avocado trees, resulting in water-shortages.  Along with avocados, almonds, cashews, mushrooms, among others can be some of the highest producers of greenhouse gases, that many are unaware about.

     Without straying towards one side or the other, I would like to present this information to the public to further research on your own and understand the true benefits and negatives related to continuing on a carnivorous diet or switching to a plant-based diet.  It’s important to understand both sides of the spectrum equally to make an informed decision, rather than hearing one story and immediately jumping on that bandwagon.    




Suggested Readings:


  2. Berners-Lee M, Hoolohan C, Cammack H, Hewitt CN. The relative greenhouse gas impacts of realistic dietary choices. Energy Policy 2012;43:184–90.


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