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Organic food provides significant environmental benefits to vegetarian diets - research

The study of over 34,000 people is the first to examine the environmental impacts of both food choices and farm production systems.

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Image: Kati Finell via Shutterstock

A DIET HIGH in fruit and vegetables is better for the planet than one high in animal products, new research has confirmed.

The study, published in the Frontiers in Nutrition journal, also found that organic food provides significant additional climate benefits for plant-based diets, but not for diets with only moderate contribution from plant products.

This is the first study to investigate the environmental impacts of both dietary patterns and farm production systems. It is also the first to look into the environmental impact of organic food consumption using observed diets rather than models.

Many organisations, including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, advocate the urgent adoption of more sustainable diets at a global level.

Such diets include reduced consumption of animal products, which have a higher environmental impact than plant-based products. This is mainly due to the high energy requirements of livestock farming, as well as the large contribution of livestock to greenhouse gas emissions.

Organic agriculture is largely considered more environmentally friendly than other modern production techniques. The researchers argue that while many studies have investigated environmentally sustainable diets, these have rarely considered both dietary choices and the production method of the foods consumed.

“We wanted to provide a more comprehensive picture of how different diets impact the environment,” study author Louise Second, of the French Agence De L’Environnement Et De La Maitrise L’Energie said.

To do this, the researchers obtained information on food intake and organic food consumption from more than 34,000 French adults.

They used what’s called a “provegetarian” score to determine preferences for plant-based or animal-based food products. The researchers also conducted production life cycle environmental impact assessments at the farm level against three environmental indicators: greenhouse gas emissions, cumulative energy demand and land occupation.

Seconda explained the results the team of researchers came upon: “Combining consumption and farm production data we found that across the board, diet-related environmental impacts were reduced with a plant-based diet – particularly greenhouse gas emissions.

The consumption of organic food added even more environmental benefits for a plant-based diet. In contrast, consumption of organic food did not add significant benefits to diets with high contribution from animal products and only moderate contribution from plant products.

The researchers did, however, caution that the environmental effects of production systems are not uniform and can be impacted by climate, soil type and farm management.

“We didn’t look at other indicators such as pesticide use, leaching and soil quality which are relevant to the environmental impacts of production systems,” Second said.

“Therefore, future studies could also consider these as well as supply chain and distribution impacts of food production.”

The authors said it will be important to conduct further studies to confirm these results and to expand our understanding of how the entire food production life cycle impacts sustainability.

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