A plant-based diet is not only optimal for human health, but also due to the fact that plants have far less negative impact on our environment compared to animal husbandry, particularly the greenhouse gases emitted when raising animals for meat and dairy products to be released . Looking ahead to a future in which our food systems as we know them will become obsolete, scientists are searching for new alternative diets that will allow humans to get their full spectrum of nutrients without causing irreparable damage to the planet.
A new report has appeared there The lancet enter the game. Researchers examined comparative greenhouse gas emissions from growing plant-based foods and ranked the best and worst whole grains in terms of their impact on the planet and water systems.
The new report published in The lancet found that not all plant-based foods are equally environmentally friendly. And while plant-based eating is generally a great way to reduce your personal carbon emissions, some whole grains are the most environmentally friendly than others.
First, let’s state one thing: Meat production has been found to produce much higher greenhouse gas emissions than growing plant-based proteins like soy or peas.
A recent study by researchers from the University of Michigan and Oxford University found that the healthiest plant-based diets generally have significantly lower environmental impacts than diets packed with meat and dairy. So if you want to help meet national and regional sustainability goals and reduce your risk of lifestyle-related chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes, ditch meat and dairy and focus on plant-based proteins instead.
Whole grains for fiber, protein and sustainability
One food category that is at the forefront of sustainability is whole grains. As part of a plant-based diet, grains like oats, barley, brown rice, rye, bulgar, and sorghum are not only great sources of energy, but they’re also high in protein and fiber.
Protein-rich grain These include cornmeal, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, wild rice, couscous, oatmeal, and buckwheat. A cup of cooked whole grains provides between 6 and 20 percent of your DV for protein. One cup of oatmeal provides 7 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber, making it a great way to start a healthy plant-based day.
When it comes to reducing the overall carbon footprint of your food, know that whole grains are key to nutrition. According to another study published in , whole grains require the least amount of water to grow compared to fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds ecosystems.
In addition, grain is extremely easy to transport and has a longer shelf life, making it an economical staple in our future food system. When measuring which grains are the most sustainable (with the lowest required carbon emissions) and require the least water to grow, certain grains top the list.
According to the commission that produced the Lancet report, both the Earth’s environmental ecosystem and human biology are complex systems. Instead of setting hard and fast rules for what is acceptable in terms of harming the planet, they have created boundaries beyond which harming the planet is too damaging to sustain our future food systems. They write:
“The Earth system and human biology are complex adaptive systems characterized by interactions and feedback loops. All scientific targets for a safe area of action for healthy nutrition and sustainable food production are therefore associated with uncertainty. By applying a precautionary and risk perspective, limits are set at the low end of the scientific uncertainty range, creating a high probability of creating a safe space in which food systems can function.
“These limits should be viewed by decision makers as a guide to acceptable levels of risk to human health and environmentally sound food production. Outside of this space for any Earth system process (e.g. high rates of biodiversity loss) or food groups (e.g. insufficient vegetable consumption) increases the risk of damage to Earth system stability and human health. When viewed together as an integrated human health and environmental sustainability agenda, win-win diets that fall within the safe operating area for food systems will help achieve global human health and environmental sustainability goals.”
Choose these whole grains as often as possible to achieve your personal sustainability goal and contribute to the good of the planet. The grains are ranked from least to most sustainable for the planet based on the latest research, including required water use. So the next time you’re at the grocery store making decisions about which grain to buy, you can now consider its environmental impact.
Whole grain products are rated from least sustainable to most according to environmental impact
Brown rice is simply rice that hasn’t been milled and processed like white rice, so it still has its bran and germ layers. However, rice production as a whole poses environmental sustainability challenges, as growing rice crops requires a large amount of land and large amounts of water.
When paddy fields are flooded, the microbes in the crop produce methane – a greenhouse gas that affects the Earth’s temperature and climate system. Studies have shown that certain farming practices and reducing flood risks can improve rice production for the planet.
Whole grain is known as a versatile and inexpensive whole grain due to the wide availability of whole grain options, from bread to pasta. It differs from white wheat because, like brown rice, it contains both the germ and bran of wheat berries, not just the endosperm
And while whole grains are more nutritious and higher in fiber, they’re not the most sustainable whole grains. According to a Nature. Next to rice, wheat is one of the most water-intensive crops.
Rye is a secret superstar when it comes to choosing an eco-friendly yet nutritious whole grain. Rye crops in particular can tolerate varying weather and climate zones and have been known to survive frosty winters. Rye also releases a chemical into the soil that suppresses weeds, and some farmers use rye as a cover crop to keep the soil in place during the winter months. As rye grows, it sequesters carbon and fixes nitrogen, meaning it helps reverse depleted soils.
Evidence from UC Davis shows that rye’s extensive, vigorous, and deep root system allows it to survive other whole grains in dry, sandy, or barren soils. So next time you’re at the sandwich shop, opt for rye bread, which is good for you and local producers and the planet.
Oats have become an increasingly popular crop for farmers in recent years as consumers increasingly switch from cow’s milk to oat milk. Growing oats is a relatively low impact crop and beneficial to the environment.
Oats are grown in crop rotations, which stops or improves soil erosion. In terms of water requirements, oats require significantly less water to grow than most other grains because their fibrous roots retain rainwater.
In addition to being a nutritional powerhouse, sorghum is also a game changer when it comes to sustainability. Also known as large millet, this plant is resilient to most weather conditions and can survive with very little water. Sorghum is also one of the most efficient plants at taking carbon out of the air and returning it to the soil, essentially soaking up the greenhouse gases and removing them from our atmosphere.
Pasta and flour made from sorghum are just beginning to appear on store shelves in the United States. But it’s very popular around the world, and the United Nations estimates that more than 90 million people in Africa and Asia depend on millet as a staple food because it’s both nutritious and economical to grow. A recent study confirms that sorghum could be a “hero plant” to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals due to its high nutrient content and climate-resilient properties.
Bottom line: choose whole grains for sustainability
Whole grains are packed with fiber, protein, and other nutrients, making them a healthy staple in your diet, but more than that, they’re eco-friendly foods that require fewer greenhouse gases to grow than meat and dairy. Include a variety of whole grains in your meals, like oatmeal, rye bread, or sorghum pasta. When it comes to eco-friendly grains, opt for those that are certified organic, as little or no pesticides have been used in their cultivation.
For more expert tips, check out The Beet’s health and nutrition articles.