Diets and Sustainability. Comparing officially recommended diets and their environmental impacts

Project Report, 2020
31 Pages, Grade: VG


Table of Contents


Conceptual framework
Definition of Food Security
Food Security and malnutrition
Energy, Water, and Food-nexus
Food recommendations and their impact

Scoping Review
Review Protocol

Analysis & Results
Data on food consumption
The Energy need for different food groups
The DGE’s Food Plates and their externalities




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How to feed 9 billion people by 2050 is a heavily discussed issue. The United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set “no hunger” as a target already by 2030. The United Nations’ aim is to

“[...] end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.”

Energy poverty is seen as hindering food security; 840 million people have no access to electricity. A growing world population and changing conditions due to climate change are seen as risk factors to achieve and sustain food security (ibid.).

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Not only is climate change influencing food production. Additionally, the food sector is the main accelerator of climate change, responsible for 10-12 % of total human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Burney et al., 2010). Increasing crop production is made possible through a higher yield per hectare, but agriculture today is more and more reliant on fertilizer and pesticide use (ibid.) which is accelerating biodiversity loss: Agriculture influences the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, leading to water pollution and eutrophication (Rockström et al. 2009). Pesticide use and monoculture jeopardize pollinators and biodiversity. Steffen et al. (2015) see already a high risk for the planetary boundaries in phosphorus and nitrogen use, and in genetic diversity on the planet.

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To feed 10 billion people by 2050, food production has to increase, but risks to the ecosystem have to be limited. Several authors discussed the problem of reconciling agriculture with biodiversity. Authors writing about intensification (sustainable, ecological, or agroecological) aim to increase yields on the same amount of land. There are strategies like including biodiversity in agriculture (Tscharntke et al., 2012; Chapell and LaValle, 2011) to ensure ecosystem services e.g. by pollinators, but also more technology-optimist debates (Godfray et al., 2010; Mueller et al., 2012) on precision agriculture, to minimize nutrient runoff into lakes and rivers and to optimize energy use. Others are more pessimistic about the realization (Garibaldi et al., 2017). Most authors concentrate on developing countries and see smallholder agriculture as a solution to end hunger and to sustain biodiversity. The reality looks different, the question remains how these theoretical concepts can be realized on a broader scale.

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While the production of enough food seems to be manageable in the future, the environmental impact of the food system remains an issue in the next decades. Agriculture is more and more embedded into a globalized market system and therefore reacting to prices. The worldwide demand for certain products defines what to be produced and transported to the customer. It is important to note that not agriculture, in general, is harming biodiversity, rather big differences can emerge depending on a chosen end product. Economic well being is growing on the planet, and so does the demand for imported or processed food and meat, especially in the developing countries and mostly in China (Schroeder et al, 1996; Delgado, 2003). At the same time, industrially mass-produced meat has an enormous impact on biodiversity and GHG emissions and health. Animals are today mostly not grass-fed anymore, but – as a prominent example – imported feed like soy from Brazilian rainforests is used (Bhachura, 2014). Talking about intensification, more efficient use of land is needed to lower the environmental impact of food production.

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Lifestyle changes and altering dietary habits towards the so-called “western diet”, heavy in processed meat, have not only environmental impacts but additionally cause health issues (Thorogood et al., 1994; O’Keefe and Cordain, 2004; Rohrmann et al., 2013). Healthy and environmentally friendly diets go, roughly speaking, hand in hand, as the recently published “planetary health diet” shows (Willett et al., 2019).

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It will be a big issue in the future to combine diets with the planetary boundaries. Not only unhealthy eating habits should be reduced through education and transparency of ingredients. Also, the environmental impact will play a role to keep food production possible in the future. The aim of this report is to investigate how the environmental impact of diets over time changed. The focus will be on German food recommendations. Food plates from the German Nutrition Society (DGE) from 1955 until today will be analyzed as possible diets, that are seen as practicable and healthy from the respective time perspective. The environmental impact can be externalities like GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, eutrophication, etc. The report stays more broad with the externalities and will use a literature analysis to find out how a diet in general can be seen both as healthy and environmentally friendly rather than focusing on one outcome.

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Research question:

What environmental impact do food plates by the DGE have?

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Conceptual framework

Definition of Food Security

The report’s definition of Food Security, linked to Energy Security, will be:

Food security exists, if diets can be chosen and sustained that need as little energy as possible to be produced. Food insecurity, therefore, emerges if the chosen diet cannot be sustained by the energy system and inside the planetary boundaries.

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Interference in the personal choices can be either through a lack of physical access or affordability in economic terms, but also socially through top-down prescriptions of nutrition, cultural eating habits or a lack of knowledge about healthy nutrition.

The health aspect of food will not be taken into further concern, however, it should play a role as a diet cannot be seen as only calories that are being burned. It might be impossible to find out the “healthiest” diet at all, rather it seems clear which diet is not healthy: Too much refined sugar, processed food, especially processed meat, and various fats such as isolated oils, saturated fats and trans-fats (Carrera-Bastos et al., 2011; Greger & Stone, 2016).

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If a diet stays within the planetary boundaries is a question of e.g. fertilizer and pesticide use, as these harm pollinators and biodiversity through water runoff and groundwater leakage. Also, the efficiency of food production plays a role: A nutrient-rich diet using fewer grain equivalents (De Vries et al., 1995), freshwater, or transport/cooling energy should be considered more resilient and secure than a diet using much energy in the production and feeding process.

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Food Security and malnutrition

The definition of Food Security changed over time and was mainly driven by international organizations like the UN and their Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The UN declared a “right to food” in its Human Rights Declaration in 1948 (UN, 1948). Later, food supply and food access were brought into the discussion. In 1996, the FAO defined food security as the “[...] access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 1996).

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The used definitions gained complexity over time. Often, dimensions like availability, accessibility, affordability, stability, and utilization are used. Gross et al. (2000) use these markers and widen the definition with a nutrition sphere. “Food Security” is only focusing on a small scale food-access, while “Nutrition Security” includes issues like the individual and public health and the environment (Fig. 1). Gross et al. also implement issues like the personal health, environmental conditions and the public health service as a part of nutrition security. The report will take this understanding of nutrition security as a broader frame, where diets (food consumption) have an influence on the actual food production, which influences the environment and the health status.

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Fig. 1: Food Security and Nutrition Security by Gross et al. (2000)

The definition allows further analysis on different levels, such as micro, meso, and macro, like a single individual or household, a community, and a state or world region.

Cherp and Jewell (2014) ask the questions “Security for whom?”, “Security for which values?”, and “From what threats?” as fundamental questions within the energy security discussion. The questions were taken from Wolfers (1952) who himself defined security as “low probability of damage to acquired values”, focusing on national security. Also, Barrett (2013) sees Food Security mainly connected to sociopolitical stability, endangered by volatile prices, land-use conflicts and missing technology and infrastructure.

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Coming from a national state point of view, energy security can be defined using the same method as an energy system is often operated by state institutions and the system’s instability might jeopardize the state of the nation. However, also nutrition can be seen as a matter of the state, including aspects like the public health system, food production, and the environment. But seeing the individual’s act only as a cause of state (in-)security, some aspects might be missing.

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In a psychological nutrition study in a low-income neighborhood, Steptoe et al. (2004) discovered differences between the ability and the will to keep a dietary change towards more fruits and vegetables going over a 12 month period. Teaching people about nutrition, all participants of the study began to eat slightly more fruits and vegetables, but dropouts were higher among younger participants and smokers. The study shows that nutrition is based on personal will.

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In western economies, food access and availability are generally not a problem as prices are low and people are not dependent on their own agricultural outcome. Rather, the personal choice about what to buy in the supermarket plays a much more important role. In this setting, misinformation, missing interest, influence of culture, family, and friends, trends, marketing of food products or simply indifference about nutrition can lead to malnutrition.

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Energy, Water, and Food-nexus

To further work on the research question and for a better understanding of the problem, the Energy, Water, and Food (EWF)-nexus can help to see the broader picture of a question like nutrition and its influence on other sectors. Food production needs energy for e.g. transportation, the machine work on agricultural fields, heating and cooling, cleaning of production sites, etc. The nexus is a part of an interdisciplinary discussion that mainly focuses on security issues on a broader scale. Figure 2, taken from Smajgl et al. (2016), shows the interconnectedness of the different research fields.

Fig. 2: “The energy-water-food Nexus” by Smajgl et al. (2016)

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The report will focus on the Food System and its connection to the energy system on a broader scale, keeping in mind the energy use of food production, transportation, distribution, and storage. Own measurements will not be made, rather, input from other literature will be taken to get an idea of which foods are tendentially more energy-intense. Figure 2 includes “food demand”, but the model seems to lack more of the individual aspect and it is rather concentrating on the broad picture. Therefore, the model should be widened in future research, including the individual with varying needs, food preferences, and health, to better understand the connection of the EWF-nexus with the individual (Figure 3).

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Excerpt out of 31 pages


Diets and Sustainability. Comparing officially recommended diets and their environmental impacts
Uppsala University  (Earth Sciences)
Energy, Water, and Food
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Food, Sustainability, DGE, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung, Diets, Ernährung, Planetary health
Quote paper
Pascal Schneider (Author), 2020, Diets and Sustainability. Comparing officially recommended diets and their environmental impacts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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