Our food preferences have a direct impact on the environment. However, previous research has largely ignored the results that demographics have to play,’ says Joe Bozeman, introducing his research into the eating habits of US citizens. Spotting this gap, he and his colleagues from the University of Illinois at Chicago set out to evaluate the environmental impact of the foods eaten by three different racial groups in the US – white, black and Latinx.
Using research from existing databases, including the US Environmental Protection Agency’s What We Eat in America – Food Commodity Intake Database – which provides per capita food consumption estimates for more than 500 types of food, Bozeman concluded that white people’s eating habits result in higher greenhouse gas emissions than those of either black or Latinx people.
To determine the amount of greenhouse gases attributed to each foodstuff, the researchers compiled ‘cradle to farm-gate’ statistics which take into account the entire food pipeline, from production to distribution and finally to waste. According to this analysis, white individuals produce an average of 680kg of carbon dioxide each year that can be directly linked to what they eat and drink, while Latinx individuals produce 640kg and blacks 600kg. The researchers also evaluated the amount of water, land and energy required to produce different foodstuffs, which revealed that the food habits of white people require about seven per cent more water (at 328,000 litres per year) than Latinx individuals (just 307,000 litres). On the other hand, black people’s eating habits depend on about 12 per cent more land than other populations, attributed in part to higher consumption of chicken and apples.
The differences can be put down to a number of different foods and preferences, though a few high-impact items do stand out in the research. ‘Whites tend to drink more water and milk,’ explains Bozeman. ‘Milk consumption has a huge impact because of the cultivation of livestock to produce the milk and because of the water involved. But also lesser-known food items such as blueberries happened to be a huge component. The white demographic doesn’t necessarily consume the most overall fruit, but they consume the most blueberries which happen to take around seven times more water to produce per kilogram than apples.’
For Bozeman, this research is more than just a novel experiment. He believes that taking demographics into consideration can improve policies related to climate change, making them more targeted and therefore more efficient. ‘A good example is corn,’ he explains. ‘In the midwestern region of the US, corn is expected to have a reduction in output by 2050 due to climate change and precipitation changes. It may be that in the northern part of Illinois, where the white demographic dominates, [they might] consume corn at a higher rate than the black demographic which dominates southern Chicago. That black demographic might not need as much corn for their diets and might be more willing to change. So there’s a myriad of complex relationships that could be looked at to really make policy work for the zones we are writing for, rather than just writing policies and hoping people will abide by them.’
This was published in the June 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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