Two recent scientific studies on the relative sustainability of different food production systems found that meat-based consumption patterns were toughest on the environment.
Industrial beef and farmed catfish had the greatest impact, while wild-caught fish and farmed oysters, mussels and scallops had the lowest, according to a new analysis from the University of Washington. The analysis was partially funded by the Seafood Industry Research Fund.
A separate study from the University of Connecticut, Tufts University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service suggested that greenhouse gas emissions might be reduced if consumers limited how much meat and other animal proteins they buy.
Environmental sustainability has become a mainstream concern for shoppers, who increasingly seek out mission-based brands that invest in practices such as organic and regenerative farming. This concern also has helped fuel the plant-based eating trend, with many consumers reducing their meat consumption in order to shrink their carbon footprint.
"From the consumer's standpoint, choice matters," Ray Hilborn, lead author and a professor in the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, said in a release. "If you're an environmentalist, what you eat makes a difference. We found there are obvious good choices, and really obvious bad choices."
The analysis measured the environmental impacts of three types of animal food production: aquaculture, or farm-raised seafood; livestock farming and wild-caught seafood. The lowest environmental impact included farmed shellfish, mollusks and sardines, mackerel and herring, the study found. Catfish aquaculture and beef production created about about 20 times more greenhouse gases than farmed mollusks, small capture fisheries, farmed salmon and chicken.
The second study, from the University of Connecticut, Tufts University and USDA's ERS, also looked at the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from household food purchases related to specific industries. It found segments that produce meat resulted in the greatest share (about 21%), then fresh vegetables and melons (11%), cheese (10%) and, lastly, milk products and butter (7%).
Researchers concluded that dietary changes from households with greater resources could help reduce greenhouse gases more than others, and that the findings might influence people to adopt lower-carbon diets if they understood how certain food shopping habits impact these emissions.
This study could encourage shoppers who are concerned about the environment to spend their money in ways that align with their own values. Still, changing diets is a heavy lift unless consumers clearly understand the actions they can take to better the environment. This gives manufacturers and retailers space to align themselves with different environmental causes to bolster their health halos, differentiate from competitors and capture new growth.
By reducing their food waste, making environmentally friendly changes to their supply chains, enhancing energy efficiency and adopting smarter packaging, companies such as Walmart, Danone North America and others can boost their sustainability profile, save money and attract customers to their products and their stores. Meat producers can also improve their image in the eyes of consumers by embracing organic farming practices, improving livestock treatment and offering trendy premium products like grassfed beef.