Healthy you, healthy planet: Eating more plants and supporting nature-friendly farming will help us all to thrive
Food is fantastic – I’m probably not the only person who’d admit that meals are a highlight of most days!
Despite rising food prices, most of us in this part of the world still have abundant access to it, and we’re indebted to the hard work of farmers and others in the supply chain who help it reach our tables.
It’s well known that our diet has a direct impact on our health – slogans like ‘You are what you eat’ and getting your ‘Five a day’ are very familiar.
What’s not so well recognized is the impact that agriculture is having on the health of the planet.
It could be argued that on a global scale, farming – as currently practiced – is making the planet sick.
Feeding a growing world population currently numbering 8 billion is putting a strain on planetary resources and squeezing out the space that’s left for other plants and animals.
Intensification of farming practices in Northern Ireland, where around 75 per cent of our land is used for agriculture, has led to declining numbers of farmland birds over recent decades.
At a global level, farming has contributed to the destruction of millions of hectares of tropical forest, for activities such as cattle grazing and the production of soya bean for animal feed concentrates.
Synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers are really effective in increasing crop yields but can have a damaging effect on ecosystems, for example, by producing algal blooms in waterways, sometimes leading to ‘dead zones’.
Nitrogen fertilizers are produced in an energy-intensive manner from natural gas, and are one of the many contributing factors to agriculture’s large carbon footprint: food systems globally are thought to account for about a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The environmental consequences of farming, along with the widespread availability of cheap ‘junk’ foods, are huge issues which require action from governments in terms of policy and regulation.
However, as individual consumers, we can also try to opt for food choices which reduce our environmental impact and, as a bonus, are good for our health.
The following are a few suggestions to help do so.
Eat more plants
As well as eating more fruit and vegetables, we can aim to increase our intake of other plant-derived foods such as pulses, seeds, nuts and whole-grains, such as oats.
Fresh, frozen or tinned – whole or minimally processed plants should play a major starring role in our diets.
They can provide the bulk of nutrients we need to stay healthy.
Eating a wide variety of plants has been found to be associated with a more diverse gut microbiome, which may have beneficial health impacts.
Plants also generally have a lower environmental footprint than other food groups.
Eating locally-grown food when it’s in season can be particularly delightful.
Growing your own or foraging are great ways to increase our intake of seasonal produce.
I can personally vouch for bountiful blackberry harvests from Fermanagh hedgerows!
Minimize packaged ultra-processed food consumption
Ultra-processed foods are factory-produced from substances extracted from whole foods, such as chicken nuggets or packets of biscuits.
They can be great for a treat and, with their long shelf life, can also help reduce our food waste.
However, they are created to be ‘more-ish’ and increased consumption levels are associated with obesity.
Studies also suggest possible links between higher consumption levels and increased rates of cancers and heart disease.
In terms of their environmental impact, their ingredients tend to be produced through intensive monocrop agriculture, which contributes to biodiversity loss.
Eat less meat
Meat is an excellent source of protein and several vitamins and minerals including B12, iron and zinc.
With our rich pasture land in this country, it’s also something we produce well.
However, meat is an environmentally costly product.
As ecologist Yvonne Buckley wrote in a recent Irish Times article, “the further our diet is from the original plant base, the more energy is lost between plant production and our mouths”.
From a health perspective, it’s not good for us to eat red and processed meat in excess.
Diets like the traditional Mediterranean diet, which include minimal amounts of these types of meat, are associated with reduced rates of heart disease.
Studies have also shown a link between higher levels of consumption of red and processed meat and bowel cancer.
Support nature-friendly farming
A shift towards more environmentally-friendly farming practices will require both support from consumers and, crucially, government policy.
At present, farmers are facing many challenges in the running of their business.
However, if financially supported to do so, farmers can play a key role in both food production and sustainable land management, for example by locking carbon into the soil and trees, and providing space for native flora and fauna to thrive.
If agriculture takes a purely extractive approach, there is a risk that the consequences will come back to bite both us and our ability to produce food, whether that’s through soil degradation, a loss of pollinators or extreme weather patterns due to climate change.
It’s absolutely imperative that we take the health of the natural world seriously – the planet’s wellbeing and our own are inextricably intertwined.
Judith Pinnick is a GP who is interested in the links between health and the environment. She works at Irvinestown Health Centre.