Going back to the true Mediterranean diet would halve the environmental damage caused by our diet

The way of consuming in Spain, from food to heating, air travel or clothing, increasingly damages the environment. The ecological footprint to satisfy intensive consumption grows based on polluting the air, degrading water, extracting resources or exacerbating climate change, as has just been confirmed by the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission.

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The JRC has analysed, in collaboration with the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, the data for Spain from his global study on the European Union. The conclusion is that, from 2010 to 2018 –the latest consolidated data–, the impacts in general have grown by 5% “with a noticeable change in trend [al alza] since 2013".

This footprint measures the environmental impacts of a country's consumption with 16 indicators. These are, among others, the acidification of the environment, the eutrophication of ecosystems (the excess of nutrients due to slurry discharges or fertilizer residues), climate change, the use of resources (water, soil or minerals), the loss of the ozone layer or pollution.

The researchers have found that the way of consuming food in Spain is the main responsible for these environmental impacts – up to 52% of the ecological footprint – and that returning to an authentic Mediterranean diet would reduce the damage very significantly. "Food consumption represents by far the main driver of the environmental impacts generated by an average person."

Food is followed by mobility due to the use of passenger cars and air travel and housing due, above all, to energy consumption for heating. The other two sectors that appear are household goods (such as clothing or furniture) and household appliances themselves: refrigerator, washing machine or air conditioners.

Food consumption represents by far the main driver of the environmental impacts generated by an average person

The conversion of the agricultural system into a “highly intensive and industrial” model explains a large part of its impacts. It has become "strongly dependent on the use of fossil resources, chemical fertilizers and large amounts of water," the study describes.

The data show that food consumption in Spain, based on this very intensive system, causes nutrient saturation in the soil and the sea (the eutrophication that Minor Sea collapsing), depletion of the ozone layer, acidification of ecosystems and massive use of water and land.

The analysis is not limited to the way of producing within Spain. The large-scale import of soybeans for livestock feed that has multiplied deforestation in the Amazon, for example, computes in the ecological footprint of Spanish consumption. Or the transformation of peatlands or forests into palm monocultures in Indonesia. These realities are what have pushed the creation of a specific European regulations to try to ensure that the import of materials does not imply deforestation.

The high consumption of meat and dairy produced industrially is what imposes the greatest environmental toll. In this sense, intensive and rising production leads to the greenhouse gas emissions of just 20 large European corporations are equivalent to three quarters of all the CO2 released by Spain in a year.

The analysis of the Research Center explains that a 25% reduction in the consumption of these products would relieve an average of 20% of impacts such as the eutrophication of the soil and the sea. It goes along the lines of what UN climate change scientists demanded (IPCC) in 2019 by calling for a diet with more vegetables and meat obtained with systems that require less energy due to their lower climate impact.

If consumption fell by 50% to adapt more to the Mediterranean diet, the environmental improvement would be even greater. 15 of the 16 environmental indicators studied would drop very significantly, up to 40% better.

But isn't the Mediterranean diet already that of Spain? The data supports that no.

The Mediterranean Diet Foundation (FDM) has long ensured that barely 45% of the Spanish population Follow this type of diet. The Spanish Federation of Nutrition, Food and Dietetics Societies (Fesnad) warned in 2021 that only 30% say they follow this diet that involves eat fruits and vegetables every day, limit red meat to twice a week and include a weekly serving of processed meat, according to the same FDM.

Although the food sector is where there is more room for improvement, all fields can contribute, reflects this work. For example, move towards more efficient appliances or deepen the reuse, recycling and repair of appliances.

Impact

The study explains that the patterns of intensive consumption in Spain (also in Europe) mean that some impacts have exceeded the limits of what is sustainable. Specifically, toxicity in fresh water, climate change, particle pollution, the use of fossil resources and eutrophication. The use of mineral resources has reached the zone of uncertainty.

The environmental pressures of the consumption pattern are noticeable, explains the JRC, both in ecosystems and in human health.

Climate change and changes in land use, for example by creating intensive monocultures, cause 80% of the damage that habitats sustain on account of consumption. “Again, food is the area that contributes the most to the loss of quality of ecosystems and therefore to the loss of biodiversity,” he says.

This process is illustrated by the degradation of the steppe ecosystems and the decline of the fauna linked to agricultural environments that is disappearing with agricultural intensification. Species typical of these habitats such as the little bustard or the ricoti lark are on the verge of receiving the cataloging of "in danger of extinction"”. They are just two examples.

Regarding people's health, the most harmful impacts that are worsened by the way of consuming are global warming –In this second fortnight of May, Spain is going through a very unusual peak of heat for this time of year– and particulate pollution.

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