While junk food is vilified for damaging the environment, healthy grains, fruit and veg often get a free pass. That is, until now.
Scientists have recently claimed that eating lettuce could be up to three times worse for than environment than bacon. The study, from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found “eating lettuce is over three times worse in greenhouse emissions than eating bacon”.
This is because lettuce has so few calories, someone would need to eat two whole iceberg lettuces to get close to calories intake of two rashers of smoked bacon. Lettuce is also far more likely to perish before it reaches the dinner table, with the food waste further increasing its emissions footprint.
But lettuce isn’t the only healthy food that does more damage to the environment than you’d think.
In Mexico, where they are colloquially referred to as “green gold”, the avocado can get you killed. Production of the fruit is concentrated in the state of Michoacán and much of it is controlled by the Caballeros Templarios drug cartel – making farmers and land owners give up a percentage of their income, enforcing a tax on fruit sold and land owned, and even murdering those who don’t play ball. All this has resulted in the term “blood guacamole”.
If that’s not enough to put you off your avocado on toast, cultivation of the fruit is also draining California of its water. There’s certainly a demand: In 2014, the US consumed 5.8 pounds per capita, up from 1.1 pounds in 1999.
California, the state where over 80 per cent of the green bombs of deliciousness are grown, is currently experiencing an extreme dry patch. Throw in the fact that the avocado’s natural growing environment is actually tropical and that it takes 72 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados and you can see the problem.
It turns out that those nuts you love to sprinkle on your granola every morning are greedy little so and sos – it takes a gallon of water to produce each and every almond.
California produces 82 per cent per cent of the world’s almonds and as the state hits its fourth consecutive annual drought, the finger of blame is being well and truly pointed at the almond. Planted to meet the demand for almond milk in the US’s most hippified state, this all-year round crop guzzles about eight per cent of the area’s agricultural water supply.
Since making the transition from wholefood shop to supermarket aisle, this low-fat, high-protein grain has become a watchword for healthy living. But it turns out this supposedly virtuous staple isn’t quite as innocent as it might seem.
Munching quinoa in the UK has detrimental effects in the fields in Peru and Bolivia, where the grain is farmed. It’s meant to be a cash crop, but the hike in prices has pushed the very people that farm quinoa out of their own market place. As export trades have grown (by 26 per cent between 2011 and 2012) and foreign costs soared (by 44 per cent in the UK alone), domestic prices have shot up. And now people who have eaten quinoa for the best part of seven centuries are finding that imported junk food is cheaper to eat.
Cashews are the most eaten nut in the US and Europe. Brimming with minerals, fibre, protein and unsaturated fat, nutritional studies have linked the nut to lower rates of heart disease and a longer life. But in India, where 60 per cent of cashews are processed, it’s another tale entirely.
The cashew is a rather protective little blighter. Before you get to the fruity, tasty bit, you’ve got to go through two armour-like shells and sandwiched in between those shells using cardol and anacardic acid.
As a result, many workers in the cashew industry suffer with acidic burns to their hands because they aren’t provided with gloves. They also only earn about £1.70 a day. It gets worse. According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, in Vietnam drug addicts in labour camps process cashews. This report has led to the use of the term ‘blood cashews’.
The mother of tofu and soymilk, the soya bean is a symbol of the vegan life style. As I’m sure many of you are aware, however, humans consume a very small amount of soy produced worldwide.
Vast sums of the legume are used as protein-rich animal feed for chickens, cows etc. As commercial farming increases, so too does soy production, and the impact it has on the environment is staggering.
For soybeans to be economically viable, large swathes of land is needed to grow them. As a result ecosystems throughout Latin America are suffering from extreme deforestation. The Amazon, the Gran Chaco, and the Atlantic Forests are all victims – almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year.
Of course, by limiting the amount of commercial (soy) animal feed reared meat we consume, we could ease the pressure. But let’s say the human consumption of soy replaces that demand – we’re back at square one. It just goes to show that even with the best interests, when it comes to the global food industry there are no guarantees that we’ll get it right.
Other foods that are bad for the environment
Christmas puddings are not just bad for your waistline, they are responsible for global warming, according to a report by the Government.
Logan Strenchock, the Environmental and Sustainability Officer at Central European University, calls cheap burgers “environmental assassins” thanks to the GMO corn and soy used to feed the cows. The pesticide in the crops then contaminates the nearby waterways.
The French ecology minister Ségolène Royal recently warned that our obsession with Nutella, and the use of palm oil in the spread, is contributing to deforestation. In an interview with French television network Canal+ Royal said: “We have to replant a lot of trees because there is massive deforestation that also leads to global warming. We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it’s made with palm oil.”
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) blames meat production – which rose to 308.5 million tons in 2013 – for 14.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, though some scientists suggest the figure it much higher. A recent study by Cambridge and Aberdeen universities concluded that on present trends, such emissions would almost double over the next 35 years.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, there are approximately 270 million dairy cows in the world, and all of them contribute to climate change as their manure produces greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to that “poor handling of manure and fertilizers can degrade local water resources. And unsustainable dairy farming and feed production can lead to the loss of ecologically important areas, such as prairies, wetlands, and forests.”