Simple food swaps could have a major environmental impact –

Switching to environmentally friendly food and drink alternatives could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from household groceries by more than a quarter. Making more significant food swaps, such as opting for vegetarian over meat products, could reduce emissions by up to 71 percent.
This is the conclusion of a new study led by the George Institute for Global Health and Imperial College London.
“The food and beverage sector ranks second only to the energy sector in terms of global contributions to carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions,” noted the study authors. 
“Food and beverage consumption patterns, particularly in higher-income countries, need to change substantially to become environmentally sustainable according to the Paris Climate Agreement and other international reports.”
“Dietary habits need to change significantly if we are to meet global emissions targets, particularly in high-income countries like Australia, the UK, and the US,” said lead author Allison Gaines, a PhD student in food policy at the George Institute. 
“But while consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of the food system and willing to make more sustainable food choices, they lack reliable information to identify the more environmentally friendly options.”
The researchers analyzed data on greenhouse gas emissions and sales from tens of thousands of supermarket products, reflecting the Western diet. 
The team used information on ingredients, weights, and production life cycles from the George Institute’s FoodSwitch database and global environmental impact datasets to calculate projected emissions from the annual grocery purchases of 7,000 Australian households.
Swaps within the same sub-categories of foods could reduce emissions by 26 percent in Australia, equivalent to taking over 1.9 million cars off the road. More significant changes within minor food categories could lead to a 71 percent reduction. 
“The results of our study show the potential to significantly reduce our environmental impact by switching like-for-like products. This is also something consumers in the UK could, and would probably like, to do if we put emissions information onto product labels,” Gaines explained.
Importantly, the switches would not compromise the overall healthiness of food. “We showed that you can switch to lower emissions products while still enjoying nutritious foods. In fact, we found it would lead to a slight reduction in the proportion of ultra-processed foods purchased, which is a positive outcome because they’re generally less healthy,” said Gaines.
The analysis found that meat products contributed almost half (49%) of all greenhouse gas emissions but only made up 11 percent of total purchases. Conversely, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes accounted for 25 percent of all purchases but only five percent of emissions.
Globally, the food and agriculture sector contributes to about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, with combined health and environmental costs estimated at 10-14 trillion USD per year. Over 12 million deaths annually could be prevented with a transition to healthy, low-emission diets
“There is currently no standardized framework for regulating the climate or planetary health parameters of our food supply, and voluntary measures have not been widely adopted by most countries,” said Bruce Neal, executive director at the George Institute Australia and professor of clinical epidemiology at Imperial College London.
“This research shows how innovative ways of approaching the problem could enable consumers to make a real impact.”
The George Institute has developed a free app called ecoSwitch, available in Australia, which allows shoppers to scan a product barcode and check its ‘Planetary Health Rating,’ indicating the product’s emissions on a scale from half a star (high emissions) to five stars (low emissions). 
The institute plans to extend the ecoSwitch algorithm to include other environmental indicators such as land and water use and biodiversity and to introduce the tool in other countries.
“While ecoSwitch is a much-needed first step in providing environmental transparency for grocery shoppers, the vision is for mandatory display of a single, standardized sustainability rating system on all supermarket products,” Neal concluded.
The study is published in the journal Nature Food.
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