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How Global Diets Link our Human Health & the Environment

With population growth and natural resource use on the rise, one of the most pressing issues affecting us today is disparity in our global food system. Globalization and industrialization have nurtured our desire for instant gratification, especially when it comes to our food, making it easy for consumers to remain uneducated in regards to the impact our global diet has on the environment. Natural resource economics show us how, based on supply and demand, as income rises, so does the consumption of refined sugars and fats, oils, and resource and land intensive products like beef and corn. A new study by University of Minnesota ecologist, David Tilman indicates that by switching to a traditional Mediterranean, vegetarian or pescatarian diet, we can improve our overall health while cutting down on emissions and land use.

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It’s difficult for our society to change our consumption habits after generations of unhealthy or unsustainable food choices. Price, availability, and personal preferences all shape our global diets. The government also reinforces our diets through the price and availability of foods, and with the subsidies and taxes they place on items like corn, milk, and sugar. In his article, Tilman explains that “by 2050 these dietary trends, if unchecked, would be a major contributor to an estimated 80 per cent increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and to global land clearing.” Especially in America, there needs to be a shift away from large scale agriculture towards more sustainable and regionally appropriate agricultural practices. According to the data, alternative diets like those previously mentioned, could prevent the majority of increased habitat degradation and greenhouse emissions associated with our current unsustainable omnivorous diet.

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Tilman’s study analyzed information on the environmental costs of food production, population statistics, and different kinds of diets. It also compiled various health impacts of our current diet compared to Mediterranean, pescatarian, or vegetarian diets. According to Tilman, “adopting these alternative diets could reduce incidence of type II diabetes by about 25 percent, cancer by about 10 percent and death from heart disease by about 20 percent relative to the omnivore diet.” The health benefits are substantial. If there’s a habitual shift in our global diet towards more sustainable food choices, then there is the potential to reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, and habitat destruction, all the while reducing or even preventing diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases, like diabetes. This diet shift is a global food challenge, and it requires an effort from all of us to make a change for a more sustainable future.

About The Author

Alyssa Harding
Alyssa is a recent graduate of the Environmental Science program at the University of Florida, and is currently employed by a non-profit which promotes environmental campaigns and ecological stewardship. An active volunteer for various organizations, she aims to promote environmental conservation and education in an effort to create a foundation for a sustainable future. Alyssa specializes in food science and natural resource economics, and ultimately has her sights set on grassland ecology and regionally appropriate agriculture in order to remedy the inequity that permeates our global food system.