#Newyearnewme – Is your health regime damaging the environment?

How to make sure your 2018 New Year's resolution to eat healthily isn't causing more harm than good.
Avocado toast by Kjokkenutstyr Net www.kjokkenutstyr.net (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This January 2018, as with every new year, the usual resolutions will be made, often focused on starting health regimes and diets. However, the impact of some of the most popular ‘healthy’ diets today aren’t all positive, particularly when considering the cost to the environment.

The health and wellness industry in Western Europe was valued at 143,000 million Euros in 2017, steadily increasing each year since 2012.  The hashtags #health and #wellness are included in more than 67 million and 14 million posts respectively on the application Instagram. The application features a plethora of healthy living tips, workouts and meal plans, with suggestions on how to adopt paleo, vegan, vegetarian or macro diets, and seek organically-grown food.

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The most popular healthy diet in terms Instagram’s post numbers is the vegan diet, with #vegan being used in more than 51 million posts.

In a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007, on the environmental impacts of Italian eating habits, the least environmental impact was attributed to the vegan organic diet, followed by vegetarian and omnivorous diets and finally the ‘normal’ Italian diet with conventional farming methods coming out as the diet with the worst environmental impact.

As such, it would seem logical that the latest ‘Insta-fitness’ trends, enticing people into eating less meat for health and wellness reasons, should prove to be beneficial for the environment.

However, many of these food trends in Western Europe have both local environmental impacts in the countries which produce these foods, often developing nations, as well as global environmental impacts created through the hefty carbon footprint from importing and exporting food around the world.

What’s in a hashtag?

Transporting food is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Watch Institute. Each year, 817 million tons of food is shipped across the planet. The result is that a basic diet of imported products can use four times the amount of energy and produce four times the emissions of an equivalent domestic diet.

Avocados, chia seeds, açaí berries and quinoa are all examples of foods which are promoted as having unique health benefits and are sourced mainly from Latin American countries.

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The hashtag #avocado has received more than 7 million posts on Instagram alone and is touted by health bloggers for its monounsaturated fat content. Mexico is the world’s largest producer of avocados, supplying around 40 percent of the international avocado market. As European avocado production is limited (Spain produces around 70,000 tonnes), the EU remains dependent on global imports. Most of the avocados consumed in the EU are imported from Peru, Chile, South Africa, Israel, and Mexico. In the last decade, the EU availability of avocados has increased by nearly 150 percent and is estimated at just below 1 kilogram/capita at this moment.

As the majority of avocados have to be imported into Europe, there are significant greenhouse gas emissions just from their transportation. In Mexico, as a result of the sharp increase in demand, farmers have had to rapidly increase the size of their farms, causing environmental damage and increased greenhouse gas emissions due to the change of land use, the decrease in forest areas, the alteration of the flora and fauna in the region, the increased use of freshwater and agrochemicals, and the added infrastructure to access and transport the avocados.

Is it necessary to search the globe for ‘exotic’ health foods?

Chia seeds are a source of omega-3 fatty acids and are rich in antioxidants. 80% of the global chia supply comes from Latin America. According to a study from Nutrition Business Journal, the chia food category is growing at 239% (annually). This puts substantial stress on Latin American communities to increase production even when environmental conditions do not support expansion efforts. Chia producing countries in Latin America, like Guatemala and Mexico, are experiencing strain on their local workforces and ways of life.

Açaí berries are found in the Amazon rainforest. The berry contains antioxidants and omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. The indigenous Amazonian communities, which have had açaí as a diet staple for years, are under pressure to give up land and market share to multinational corporations. To retain at least some of the profits from increased cultivation, indigenous groups have been forced to formalise cultivation and industrialise the once traditional production process, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Quinoa is the seed of a plant which boasts a high protein content. Peru and Bolivia produced nearly 99 percent of all commercially grown quinoa in 2010. The rising price of quinoa and the focus on exporting means that the grain is no longer easily accessible to indigenous people. This situation disrupts a way of life for Andean cultures, some of whom now have to import foods due to the quinoa price rise.

While these foods do all provide significant health benefits, these benefits are not so unique that they cannot be gained through more locally sourced foods.

Avocados contain beneficial monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, the same kind of good fat found in olive oil and nuts and the same kind of vitamin E found in spinach, for example. Chia seeds contain omega-3 fatty acids, found in vegetable oils, walnuts and dark leafy vegetables. Chia seeds and açaí berries contain antioxidants, as do blackberries and strawberries, widely available throughout Europe. Quinoa contains a large amount of protein, as does cornmeal, beans or oatmeal, for example.

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The reason these foods gain popularity as unique health foods is because of an ‘exotic back story’, namely a claim that this new exotic food will provide health benefits that the consumer had not been able to achieve before with their usual diet, and food marketers use this to put an exorbitant markup on such products.

An example of some affirmative action on this front can be seen from Pret A Manger, an international sandwich shop chain based in the UK, which, since 2013, has chosen to source its quinoa from The British Quinoa Co. which grows quinoa in the UK without the use of any herbicides, insecticides or fungicides.

So this New Year, if you are concerned about the environmental impact of your new health regime, a locally-sourced and organically-grown vegan diet has been shown to contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions, and won’t exacerbate the negative impact felt in the local environments and communities which produce the ‘Insta-famous’ global health fad foods.

Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
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