WWF Study: Protecting Biodiversity with a Knife and Fork

fruits and vegetables

Fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. Thanks to a flexitarian diet with reduced consumption of animal products, our biodiversity footprint could already be significantly reduced – with a consistent vegetarian or vegan diet even more. Photo: Wolfgang Kumm / dpa

Whether it’s controversial palm oil or cheap meat with questionable climate balance – it’s common knowledge that some foods aren’t good for your CO2 footprint. But how does the average German diet affect biodiversity?

A new study by the environmental organization WWF sheds light on the footprint we leave in our diets in terms of the diversity of life in the country. The result: what we eat has a big impact on biodiversity – not only in this country, but also in remote regions.

Animal products have the largest share in the footprint

The so-called biodiversity footprint as a value in the WWF study is calculated in a relatively complex way. Roughly speaking, it’s about how much our diet affects natural areas with their animals and plants in Germany and around the world.

In numbers, the specific effects of consuming a variety of foods are as follows: Animal products such as meat, cold cuts, eggs or cheese make up by far the largest share of the carbon footprint (77 percent). On the other hand, only 23 percent comes from consuming plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts.

The need for a large area for animal feed

In the case of animal products, it is mainly the large amount of space needed for animal feed that has a negative effect. “Everything we have on our plates or buy is produced somewhere and therefore needs space,” said Tanja Dräger, nutrition expert at WWF Germany, dpa. On the one hand, you are dependent on intact services, but on the other hand, you are putting them in jeopardy. The result, the study concludes, is that the higher the proportion of plant-based foods in the diet, the lower the biodiversity footprint it causes worldwide .

Experts have long recognized a decline in biodiversity: the World Biodiversity Council (IPBES) warns that within a few decades around one million animal and plant species could become extinct. According to the expert panel, our food systems play a key role here. They account for 70 percent of biodiversity loss on land and 50 percent in rivers and lakes.

Vegetarian and vegan diets greatly reduce traces

In addition to the current situation, the WWF study also explains how the altered diet of the Germans could benefit biodiversity. With a flexitarian diet that includes reduced consumption of animal products, our global biodiversity footprint can be reduced by 18 percent – with a consistent vegetarian diet by up to 46 percent and vegan by 49 percent.

Nature in Brazil would therefore benefit particularly from rethinking the diet – primarily because growing soybeans for animal feed would then require much less space.

Bees, coughs and butterflies in Germany, orangutans in Malaysia or anteaters and jaguars in Brazil – there are many species that can be protected through more conscious nutrition, Dräger emphasizes. “In this regard, there is great potential to contribute to the protection of habitats by reducing the consumption of animal products. And also good for your health. ” Research should therefore create awareness of what your own food consumption can do.

Climate-friendly labeling helps

A new study by a team led by Ann-Katrin Betz of Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg suggests that people in restaurants are more likely to choose climate-friendly foods if it is labeled as such on the menu, and the environmental benefits are clear to them that their consumer behavior is made aware.

In a survey published in the journal Plos Climate, 256 people chose from a variety of hypothetical menus. They were shown to choose more climate-friendly vessels when carbon labeling was present and when components consisted of low-carbon options.

“Start first of all”

Nevertheless: Dräger emphasizes that the burden cannot be placed solely on the shoulders of the consumers. “Politics and business are welcome here.” Specifically, based on its results, WWF is calling on the federal government to implement a nutrition strategy by 2023 and switch to a sustainability tax. “We are currently seeing that certain plant-based products or meat substitutes are more expensive than meat alone,” criticizes Dräger. In addition, domestic cultivation of fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes should be expanded.

Antje Risius, who studies sustainable eating styles at the University of Göttingen, summarizes what everyone has to do to protect biodiversity – and what politics and business must do: “Start first”. Efficient use of resources is crucial. A plant-based diet allows you to combine health, economic and environmental aspects.

For consumers, however, this means that information and products must be shared. “Of course, the first are those who set the framework – that is, politics and business,” says Risius. Creating a fair framework for the appropriate adaptation of eating habits is a task for society as a whole.

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