Greenhouse emissions from Australian diets are 200 per cent higher than those of a typical high-income country, new research has found, with the blame placed on our meat-heavy diets.
According to Dutch scientists, writing in PNAS, the amount of meat eaten and farming practices such as grass-fed cattle meant that Australia was using more land and creating more emissions per capita than any other country.
The only country that challenged Australia was Brazil, which had higher eutrophication rates (nutrient run-off like nitrogen and phosphorus into water).
CSIRO research scientist Dr Pep Canadell said Australia was “off the charts” in terms of dietary environmental impacts – quite literally.
“Authors of the report had to truncate the bars showing environmental impacts of Australia’s average diet for ‘ease of visualisation’, meaning the size of impact didn’t fit in the graph,” Dr Canadell said, “which means Australia’s heavy meat diet is leading the world in atmospheric and water pollution.”
Eat the recommended diet
The study found that countries could cut emissions dramatically just by following recommended dietary advice.
Compared with the average diet, national recommended diets (NRDs) in high-income countries would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 13-24.8 per cent, the amount of land needed for agriculture by 5.7-17.6 per cent and eutrophication by 9.8-21.3 per cent.
The research said while NRDs had been used to promote good health, they also represented an important policy tool for decreasing environmental impacts.
While the research showed animal products counted for 70 per cent of dietary greenhouse gas emissions in high-income countries, NRDs in countries like Australia are focused on increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables eaten, which have less environmental impact.
University of Sydney School of Medical Sciences and Bosch Institute Professor Brian Morris said the study showed what was good for health was also good for the environment.
“Eating at the top of the food chain by humans is not only inefficient, it is bad for our health,” Professor Morris said.
“National dietary advice, by high-income countries in particular, is to consume vegetable protein in preference to meat and other animal produce, as the latter are associated with greater prevalence of various cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”
He said beef production was one of the most prominent contributors to global warming, thanks to methane emissions and associated deforestation.