Findings on environmental effects of food consumption 'alarming'

What are the environmental footprints associated with different food consumption patterns in Australia? Photo: T Habr/Unsplash

Junk foods contribute more than one-third of the average Australian household’s diet-related water use, greenhouse gas emissions and land use, according to a researcher from UNSW.

Dr Michalis Hadjikakou, of the university’s Sustainability Assessment Program, conducted the research with the support of the Academy’s WH Gladtones Population and Environment Fund.

Dr Hadjikakou compared the environmental footprints associated with different food consumption patterns in Australia at a very high level of socioeconomic and spatial resolution. His finding is significant and alarming: debate on environmentally sustainable diets has largely centred on carbon emissions related to animal protein consumption, while neglecting the diverse environmental impacts of junk food products.

Following on from his findings, he is using an optimisation technique to generate realistic dietary modifications that could reduce carbon emissions while catering for affordability constraints within each socioeconomic group. Amongst the most interesting findings is that, while diets more compatible with the Australian Dietary Guidelines could significantly reduce carbon emissions in wealthier socioeconomic groups, healthier diets would entail a slight emission rise in lower income groups, even when considering potential food waste reductions and elimination of junk food. This finding highlights the challenge of reducing the environmental impacts of food consumption while also meeting current national dietary recommendations.

He plans over the next two years to develop more sophisticated models and interdisciplinary research programs related to broader issues such as food and nutrition security and sustainable food systems.

See Dr Hadjikakou’s recently published paper in Ecological Economics.

The research fund supporting this work was established in 2010 through generous donations from the late Dr William H Gladstones.

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science