Knowledge for better food systems

Trimming the excess: environmental impacts of discretionary food consumption in Australia

Credit: wellunwell, soft drinks, Flickr, Creative Commons Licence 2.0

This study estimates the environmental impacts of what it terms discretionary foods - foods and drinks that do not provide nutrients that the body particularly needs. It finds that these foods account for 33-39% of food-related footprints in Australia.

This study estimates the environmental impacts of what it terms discretionary foods - foods and drinks that do not provide nutrients that the body particularly needs, including: cakes and biscuits; confectionary and chocolate; pastries and pies; ice confections; butter, cream, and spreads which contain predominantly saturated fats; processed meats and fattier/salty sausages; potato chips, crisps and other fatty or salty snack foods; sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, sports and energy drinks and alcoholic drinks).  It finds that these foods  account for 33-39% of food-related footprints in Australia.

As the author points out, meat consumption has so far been the main focus of work on dietary change, but the paper argues that the effects of discretionary foods deserve more attention, especially as their consumption is avoidable (a reduction does not have negative health implications, whereas arguably red meat provides important micronutrients that may not be accessible elsewhere in certain areas) and has been increasing in recent decades, particularly among low-income groups. Note that the definition of discretionary foods given in this study includes processed meat.

On average, the study finds that discretionary foods account for a significant 35%, 39%, 33% and 35% of overall diet-related life cycle water use, energy use, carbon dioxide equivalent and land use respectively. The meat component (i.e. processed meats) dominates when it comes to CO2eq, land use and water-related impacts; while for energy use, condiments and confectionery (closely followed by meat) dominate. The author points out that all of these figures are likely to be underestimates as consumption is often under-reported. 

Lower socioeconomic groups obtain more dietary energy from discretionary foods, with the exception of the very lowest socioeconomic quartile which has a lower than average percentage contribution from non-discretionary foods.  However, the highest income quintile has, in absolute terms, significantly higher discretionary spending and total environmental impact across all indicators, despite having lower dietary energy intake percentages from discretionary food (as seen in Fig. 1 below).  This is largely explained by the fact that this group spends more on alcohol.

Percentage discretionary dietary intake in relation to reported energy intake for different demographic, socioeconomic and geographic segments of the Australian population

The study highlights the challenges associated with shifting consumption in ways that are progressive rather than regressive in their effects on poorer households. It also discusses the substitution effect  - i.e. the possibility that healthier substitute foods may also generate high environmental impact.  It concludes that:

“Expending significant amounts of energy and environmental resources to create large amounts of profitable but highly discretionary and often unhealthy products should be seen as fundamentally unsustainable for our future, especially when faced with the challenge of achieving global food security for a larger future population. Future research and modelling must ensure that measures to encourage elimination or, where necessary, substitution with non-discretionary foods, remain equitable, in line with nutritional guidelines, and account for potential environmental trade-offs and rebounds.”

Abstract

Tackling the over consumption of discretionary foods (foods and drinks not necessary to provide the nutrients the body needs) is central to aligning human and planetary health. Whilst the adverse health impacts of discretionary foods are well documented, the environmental and broader sustainability impacts of these products deserve more attention, especially since their consumption has been increasing in recent decades, particularly amongst low-income groups. This paper presents a quantitative case study analysis of discretionary food consumption and the associated environmental impacts for households from different income groups in Australia. Environmentally extended input-output analysis is used to estimate the full life cycle environmental impacts of discretionary food consumption on the basis of household expenditures. On average, discretionary foods account for a significant 35%, 39%, 33% and 35% of the overall diet-related life cycle water use, energy use, carbon dioxide equivalent and land use respectively. These significant percentages provide further support for the need to incentivise diets that are both healthier and more sustainable, including ‘divestment’ from discretionary food products. The study highlights the challenges ahead, including the need for further research on food substitutions to minimise environmental and social impacts whilst maximising nutritional quality – especially amongst poorer socioeconomic groups.

Citation

Hadjikakou, M. (2017). Trimming the excess: environmental impacts of discretionary food consumption in Australia. Ecological Economics, 131, 119-128.

Read the full article here (paywall).

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Australasia

This region of Oceania comprises Australia, New Zealand, the island of New Guinea, and neighbouring islands in the Pacific Ocean. Its ecozone forms a distinct region with a common geologic and evolutionary history which has resulted in a set of unique types of animals and plants. Due to the reverse seasonality with the US and Europe, much food produce is exported to these countries in the winter from Australia and New Zealand. Except for the lush rainforest of Queensland and the east, much of the Australia is arid and unsuitable for arable agriculture. The country is considered highly vulnerable to climate change and associated impacts including droughts and wildfires.

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