Climate change experts agree—the Earth is in trouble. Taking on climate change as an individual can be daunting. However, new research suggests that doing your part to help to Earth may be as simple as changing your diet.
According to a press release issued by Frontiers in Nutrtion, a new study found that shifting towards a plant-based diet is an effective way to decrease one’s environmental impact. The study focused on the issue of phosphorus sustainability, which is increasingly threatened by population increases, certain farming practices and food chains.
The research team, lead by Dr. Genevieve Metson, investigated whether a change in human diet (involving a shift toward a plant-based diet) could be an effective method of conservation. The team’s study focused around calculating the phosphorus footprint—or the amount of phosphorus mined to support one’s diet.
Dr. Metson is a postdoctoral research fellow with the National Research Council.
Using food intake data from the 2011 National Nutrition Survey and focusing on a city in Australia, the team calculated the citizens’ total consumption of different food groups and the average amount of phosphorus fertilizer required to produce those foods.
The team then considered the potential effect of a switch to a plant-based diet, converting the meat, dairy, eggs and seafood consumed to seed plants of the legume family.
Their calculations showed that a plant-based diet shift could lead to an 8 percent increase in phosphorus ingested—and excreted—by the city’s residents. The team’s calculations also showed that a shift toward a plant-based diet could have a 72 percent decrease in an individual’s phosphorus footprint.
The study stressed that as the human population increases, our long-term food security and water quality are threatened by our increased demand for phosphorus fertilizers. The results suggest that a mass shift toward a plant-based diet could significantly reduce the need for mined phosphorus.
"The most unexpected result was just how big of an impact diet changes can have on phosphorus fertilizer requirements, and that if you are only considering phosphorus reuse as a management strategy, you could miss diet as being an important part of planning for a sustainable food system,” Dr. Metson said in the press release.
Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for all living beings. It is required for proper cell functioning, regulation of calcium and contributes to energy production in our bodies. Almost all foods contain phosphorus, so a deficiency in humans is rare.
However, because phosphate rock is a threatened, non-renewable resource, the increasing scarcity poses a severe problem for the farming industry which needs phosphorus fertilizers to sustain crop productivity.
Humans consume crops either by eating a crop directly or by feeding a crop to an animal that will later be eaten. Consuming crops directly requires vastly less phosphorus than consuming crops indirectly.
About two pounds of phosphorus can be used to produce about 7,348 pounds of root vegetables or a mere 35 pounds of beef. This means that humans can conserve phosphorus by making simple, intentional dietary choices and by choosing plant-based products instead of animal products.
A phosphorus decline doesn't just threaten our food supply. The loss of phosphorus to waterways—from agricultural fields through runoff or urban sewage—can cause severe water quality degradation.
While there is a variety of interventions to move toward phosphorus security, it’s clear that everyone can help conserve phosphorus, protect our waterways, our environment and our world.
This study was published in the August edition of Frontiers in Nutrition.
It was supported in part by an Endeavour Research Fellowship from the Australian government.
The authors declared no financial conflicts of interest.