The environmental impacts of meat have been well-documented, and now a new study illuminates the harmful impact of processed junk food as well.
Junk Food’s Carbon Footprint
Could cutting back on sweets, pastries, and junk food help reduce greenhouse gases?
A 2021 study published in the journal Current Nutrition Reports reviewed 20 studies that evaluated the environmental impact of food consumption in Australia and New Zealand, and while the environmental impacts of consuming meat are well-documented, this study shines a spotlight on the carbon footprint of processed food.
The foods we choose to consume can have a harmful impact on the environment. Both animal products and processed foods require additional cropland, water, packaging, and other inputs. In New Zealand, livestock and processing meat, seafood, and eggs account for 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from foods, while processed foods such as pastries and ice cream account for 34 percent.
In Australia, out of the 510 metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in 2020, 71 metric tons were food related. The average Australian contributes 43 pounds of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, each day into the atmosphere from eating processed and animal-based foods.
Another 30 metric tons of Australia’s greenhouse gases in 2020 were from food waste. This includes the water, energy, and pesticides used in food production and packaging that end up in landfill. Once food waste hits a landfill, it starts to release methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.
While around 70 percent of Australia’s food related greenhouse gases in this new study came from foods that are considered staples, including fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat, 30 percent came from avoidable energy-rich and nutrient-poor discretionary foods, such as sugar-sweetened drinks, pastries, confectionary foods, processed meat, and alcohol.
Change Your Diet, Save the Planet
As the ancient Vedic Upanishads say, Yatha pinde, tatha Brahmande, which means As is the atom, so is the universe. Your body is a microcosm of the larger macrocosm that is the planet.
If we destroy one with junk food, we destroy the other. This logic is also supported by another Vedic saying: What we eat, we become.
These values spontaneously establish a relationship between the subtle (unseen) and gross (seen) aspects of nature, which, according to Ayurveda, include heaven and earth.
Ayurveda is a science dedicated to maintaining a healthy mind and body that naturally support honor, integrity, respect, and reverence for nature. In Ayurveda, the relationship between the earth, environment, atmosphere, and the heavens are all connected.
By establishing a relationship between heaven (spirituality) and earth we naturally come to respect all aspects of our world. We start to understand that there is a necessary balance of give and take in all natural processes.
The Rig Veda, which is recognized as one of the oldest Vedic texts, talks about the earth’s ability to replenish in a prayer that states: “Whatever I dig from thee, O Earth, may that have quick recovery again. O purifier (earth), may be not injure thy vitals or thy heart.” The ancients knew that a balance had to be established for earth and humans to thrive. Another prayer in the Rig Veda states: “You give me and I give you.”
If you follow this Ayurvedic wisdom, you avoid foods that do harm to both the body and environment. You also don’t take from the earth without giving back. You deepen your connection to nature and spirit and realize that they are related.
The Root of Environmental Problems
Ancient Ayurvedic practitioners knew that indiscriminate human activities were linked to corruption that further led to imbalances in seasons, rainfall, air and water quality, and the health and abundance of the crops.
The world’s population is projected to reach 10 billion people by 2050. To feed that many people while not destroying the planet, we have to change the way we eat and produce food. Today, half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, and roughly two-thirds of the world’s fresh water is used for irrigation. Worldwide, this has led to a 60 percent loss in biodiversity.
Worldwide, food consumption and production account for one quarter of total global emissions.
Ayurvedic Guidelines for Sustainable Eating—The Rules of Give and Take
- Eat non-toxic organic Whole foods
- Consume less animal-based protein
- Eat seasonally
- Buy only what you need
- Make meals sacred—they are a time when nature’s intelligence is feeding ours
- Train your body to eat less. Start with two larger meals and a smaller one.
- Buy imperfect food–or it will fill landfills
- Grow your own food
- Shop at a farmers market
- Subscribe to a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture)
- Plant trees, shrubs, and flowers
- Spend time in nature and be grateful and awe struck
- Vote for the environment
See also LifeSpa’s 3-Season Diet Eating Guide