The carbon footprint of dietary guidelines around the world: a seven country modeling study

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Do the environmental impacts inherent in national food-based dietary guidelines (FBDG) vary around the world, and, if so, how? Most previous studies that consider this question focus on a single country or compare countries’ guidelines without controlling for differences in country-level consumption patterns. To address this gap, we model the carbon footprint of the dietary guidelines from seven different countries, examine the key contributors to this, and control for consumption differences between countries.

In this purposive sample, we obtained FBDG from national sources for Germany, India, the Netherlands, Oman, Thailand, Uruguay, and the United States. These were used to structure recommended diets using 6 food groups: protein foods, dairy, grains, fruits, vegetables, and oils/fats. To determine specific quantities of individual foods within these groups, we used data on food supplies available for human consumption for each country from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food balance sheets. The greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) used to produce the foods in these consumption patterns were linked from our own database, constructed from an exhaustive review of the life cycle assessment literature. All guidelines were scaled to a 2000-kcal diet.

Daily recommended amounts of dairy foods ranged from a low of 118 ml/d for Oman to a high of 710 ml/d for the US. The GHGE associated with these two recommendations were 0.17 and 1.10 kg CO2-eq/d, respectively. The GHGE associated with the protein food recommendations ranged from 0.03 kg CO2-eq/d in India  to 1.84 kg CO2-eq/d in the US, for recommended amounts of 75 g/d and 156 g/d, respectively. Overall, US recommendations had the highest carbon footprint at 3.83 kg CO2-eq/d, 4.5 times that of the recommended diet for India, which had the smallest footprint. After controlling for country-level consumption patterns by applying the US consumption pattern to all countries, US recommendations were still the highest, 19% and 47% higher than those of the Netherlands and Germany, respectively.

Despite our common human biology, FBDG vary tremendously from one country to the next, as do the associated carbon footprints of these guidelines. Understanding the carbon footprints of different recommendations can assist in future decision-making to incorporate environmental sustainability in dietary guidance.

Publication Type: 
Journal Article
Nutrition Journal
Date Published: 
March 1, 2021
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Kovacs, Brittany, Lindsey Miller, Martin C. Heller, and Donald Rose (2021) “The carbon footprint of dietary guidelines around the world: a seven country modeling study.” Nutrition Journal 20(15):1-10
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