5 Foods That Are Bad For The Environment, Because It's Not Always Obvious

Shutterstock

On Aug. 8, the United Nations released a report detailing how food production contributes to global warming — and how global warming simultaneously threatens the world's food supply. Following this report's release, you might be wondering exactly how your diet affects the environment. This list of popular foods that are bad for the environment may provide some surprising insights into how your consumption impacts the world's natural resources.

The UN's report, which came from the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change, emphasized that certain agricultural practices around the world need to change in order to curb global warming. As NPR described, the report emphasized that sustainable agriculture, reforestation (the re-planting of forest land), and reduced food waste can all help mitigate the effect of food production on the environment.

The New York Times also emphasized that the UN report indicated that a transition to more plant-based diets, which have a smaller environmental impact, could also help stop global warming. Beyond this, it doesn't appear that the report made other specific recommendations about the types of food you should consume to limit your environmental impact. However, its findings certainly open the door for further thought on the topic.

The list below includes a variety of foods that have a surprisingly heavy environmental impact. Still, it's important for you to assess for yourself if and how this information will affect your consumption. Dietary needs, economics (both your own and those of the person producing the food), and availability also all play into food choices, so the decision about what to consume is understandably a complex and personal one. But, if you're looking to diminish your environmental impact through the food you consume, this list can offer a good stating point.

Meat

Raising livestock for human food consumption has an enormous environmental impact. For example, according to a Scientific American slideshow, meat production, which includes production beef, chicken, and pork, "emits more atmospheric greenhouse gases than do all forms of global transportation or industrial processes."

As NASA's Earth Observatory emphasized, greenhouse gases substantially contribute to global warming, which has devastating environmental and human consequences. Some of these consequences include more frequent occurrences of extreme weather events, like flooding, droughts, and severe storms, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Cheese

Like meat, cheese, along with other dairy products, has a substantial environmental impact because of its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, a National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) study revealed that, between 2005 and 2015, different cheeses were listed three times as some of the top foods in Americans' diets that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Notably, as the NRDC described, different cheeses have various levels of environmental impact, depending on the animal used to produce them and the method of production. So, it's important to do your research if you're looking to reduce your environmental footprint by curbing your cheese consumption.

Almonds

Like avocados, almond production also requires lots of water. As the New York Times described, most of the world's almonds are grown in California, a state which experienced years of drought from 2011 onward (officials declared the drought over in March 2019, NBC reported). As the University of California San Francisco's Office of Sustainability described, it takes around 15 gallons of water to produce only 16 almonds, which makes the almond tree one of the heaviest water-using plants in the state.

Avocados

As e-CSR, a media platform that covers environmental issues, described, avocados have a substantial environmental impact for two reasons: their status as a single-crop and their heavy water use.

As the outlet noted, single-crops are those that are grown on the same land over and over again. Eventually, this heavy land use can deplete the nutrients in the soil and also make it more susceptible to disease, e-CSR indicated. This, in turn, makes use of pesticides and fertilizers (to combat disease and restore the soil's nutrients) more likely, which can have harmful effects on the surrounding environment, the outlet added.

Moreover, avocado plants also require a ton of water. According to Mother Nature Network, around 528 gallons of water are used to produce approximately 2.2 pounds of avocados. As The Guardian documented, avocado plants' heavy water can have serious impacts for humans and the environment. For example, in 2018 the paper reported that avocado farmers' diversion of river water to sustain their plants likely contributed to a drought in the Chilean province of Petorca.

Soy Products

Soy is used in lots of meatless products and is also found in soybean oil and soy-based sauces. As the World Wildlife Fund described, commercial soy production contributes heavily to deforestation, which can causes significant loss of plant and animal life and also displaces people who live near soybean farms. Moreover, as Mongabay, a nonprofit environmental publication, noted, deforestation can also help contribute to greenhouse gas production, because clearing native vegetation off of land to make room for commercial soy crops makes that land less able to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

As you can see, many foods have significant environmental impacts, though these impacts are often dependent on where and how these food items are being produced. If you want to try to reduce negative environmental consequences from your own food consumption, it's also crucial to research specific food products and companies to get better insight into the environmental impact of their products.