How Sustainable is your Food?

When it comes to health and sustainability, is anything black and white anymore? Let’s take a look to see if there are any obvious food culprits when it comes to environmental impact…

  • Pasture beef vs. Conventional feedlot beef:

Beef farming comes with one of the highest environmental impact rates out of all the food groups, with green house gas emissions at 58% of the total emissions in Australia alone. But emissions rates from beef are very dependent on the chosen feed system.

Grazing beef farms in Australia and America are said to be extremely environmentally friendly, with the majority of the cattle grass fed, not grain fed with soy or corn, (these two grains requiring substantial water, fertilizers, GMO intervention, transport and processing), making pasture cattle more environmentally sustainable.

Although, according to The Australian National University who compared an organic beef farmer with a conventional feedlot, the grass fed beef produced more emissions than the grain-finished beef. Grain fed are now considered more environmentally sustainable than large grazing cattle farms, as less forest is cleared for the smaller feeding lots, they have strict environmental protection regulations which implement how they manage waste, run off and protect the water table. Who would have thought?

  • Fresh Fish vs. Farmed Fish

Although it sounds more natural, ocean fishing is on such a large scale now that there is enormous petroleum usage coupled with huge product wastage, leading to the almost extinction of many species. The fossil fuels needed to run fishing boats and the damage done to reefs and other wildlife through dragnets is huge.

In comparison, farmed fish are commonly fed GMO soy and colour pellets, and produce a large amount of chemical pollution, which are damaging and chocking valuable reef and wildlife in the rivers and waterways they are grown in. There is also said to be more disease in farmed fish.

There’s no clear winner here, the best type of fish would be hand caught from your local, clean water way.

  • Eggs vs. Cheese:

With cheese production producing a similar environmental impact as feedlot beef, and being worse for the environment than milk, cheese is the obvious bad guy here.

If we look purely at the water usage comparison that goes into the production of cheese to eggs, cheese uses a staggering amount more. Water is needed not only for the cattle, but also for irrigating their pastures, or for the production of their grain feed- both being substantial. It is said one pound of cheese takes around 600 gallons of water. Therefore, 2 slices of cheese uses about 100 gallons of water!

  • Lamb vs. Chicken:

According to Professor Andy LeBrocque from the University of Southern Queensland, chicken is the most environmentally sustainable out of all livestock for a number of reasons; they are smaller animals, they require less space than their larger counterparts, require less water and are lighter to transport.

Lamb is considered the second most environmentally impactful livestock after beef.

It produces more gas emissions, more water is used and there’s more land clearance. Although in a twist, caged chickens produce more pollutants to the land and water than do lamb. So free-range chicken is the clear winner here.

  • Brown rice vs. Basmati rice:

Brown rice comes from what’s called paddy rice, grown in Australia in NSW and parts of the US. The first stage of processing is to remove the husk, and this simply makes brown rice.

Australia follows strict water usage regulations, and is said to be one of the most water efficient countries in the world when it comes to rice growth.

On the other hand, basmati rice is similar to Champagne, and can only be called thus if it comes from a particular part of India and Pakistan, which do not follow or track environmental or water usage regulations. Basmati also requires a lot of fossil fuels in getting to your plate. Basmati is a type of long grain rice, the husk is removed, and then it goes through a second stage of processing to polish it. So Brown rice is the clear winner here.

  • Quinoa vs. chia

Quinoa and chia are some of the hottest super foods around, but which one is more environmentally sustainable?

Quinoa is a seed-grain, and grown mostly in the Andean highlands, such as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, but its popularity has now caused significant soil erosion there with pressure on farmers to grow more.

Quinoa is starting to be grown in areas of The Rocky Mountains in the US and parts of Asian and Europe.

Chia seed, originally from Mexico and Guatemala is largely grown in The Kimberly region of Western Australia. While there are strict environmental regulations governing chia, it’s quite hard to gather hard evidence on water or emissions data surrounding quinoa growth. One big factor for choice is where either are grown? I would say chia is the slight winner here, but If it’s been grown closer to you it has less environmental impact, if it’s travelled a million miles to get to your door, it’s the bad guy.


  • Whole dairy milk vs. alternative milks:

Producing whole raw milk impacts the environment in a big way. According to the U.N’s Food and Agricultural reports, this industry makes up 4% of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions, and produces 13kg of CO2 per month.

From the production of feed for cows, to the processing of the milk, the refrigerated transport required and the varying packaging materials, it’s a big environmental cost.

In general, dairy free milks require large amounts of processing too but appear to be more sustainable. The ingredients may travel further than that for dairy milk, but for instance; coconut milk uses less water, energy, and land and produces fewer emissions than soy, rice or almond milk. Soy and rice milk require a lot of land clearing, while almond milk requires a lot of water. The winner would be coconut milk.

  • Broccoli vs. Kale:

In the debate against vegetables and fruit, there is not a lot of evidence into specific types vs. others. The main factors for environmental impact would be the weight of the product, which requires more fossil fuels to move, how far away that product has to travel, is it being grown in its season or is the food coming from overseas and in cold storage to be sold? How hardy the plant is, and how much wastage there is in its growth, if it’s organic or conventional, or being wrapped in plastic for sale?

Using these factors to measure, kale wins this argument. It’s hardy and adaptable to grow in many conditions, including through frost, it’s lighter per bunch than broccoli, it’s not often brought in from overseas, it’s not often wrapped in plastic for sale, and it’s easy to buy the organic version. The organic version often being from a farm closer to you than the conventional versions, which may have been in cold storage across the other side of the world.

  • Apples vs. Pineapple:

Apples vs. pineapple is very dependent on how far the fruit has travelled to get to you, and which season you’re in.

If you live in the warmer areas of Australia or the U.S, and it’s summer, then pineapple wins, as it’s the correct season for its growth, and it has probably been grown just around the corner from you.

If you are in the US, the pineapples may be coming from Hawaii, which adds slightly more impact.

But if it’s winter and you live in a predominantly cooler climate, apples are the more sustainable choice, as they have generally not travelled too far to get to you, and haven’t been kept in long-term cold storage overseas.

  • Lentils vs. tofu:

Legumes are considered one of the most sustainable crops to grow, as they produce very little emissions, don’t require much water in comparison to other crops, and most legume growth actually fixes nitrogen in the soil, so they don’t require nitrogen based fertilizers, making them more sustainable.

On the other hand soy production has a big impact of environmental sustainability, where much land is cleared to grow soy, and unless it’s organic, massive amounts of fertilizer and herbicides are used.

In the processing of soy to tofu, more emissions are released, there’s more water and energy use, so lentils are the clear winner here.

  • Wheat vs. Oats:

In the contest between wheat and oats, wheat is the standout baddy. The amount of water usage is massive, parts of which washes the farming equipment, the other which irrigates the enormous spans of crop. The harvesting process requires lots of machinery, while the amount of fertilizers, chemicals and pesticides used are substantial. Wheat that is then processed into bread contributes significantly to global warming, with one loaf of white bread equaling 2.3 of CO2-e being produced.

Oats on the other hand, require far less water and processing from beginning stage to end, so they win this battle.

11) Pork vs. Bacon

When it comes to a product effecting environmental biodiversity, pork exerts a relatively low pressure compared with beef or lamb.

Pork comes from controlled indoor or outdoor farms and feeding systems, and they do produce moderate to high chemical pollution if they come from indoor farms. Both pork and bacon production require large volumes of water and energy, although bacon requires further processing and smoking than does pork, so bacon is the environmental villain in this debate.


Published by honnutrition

Qualified Nutritionist, Health Writer, Nutritional Journalist. Nerdy with a touch of class.

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