An integrated assessment of environmental sustainability and nutrient availability of food consumption patterns in Latin America and the Caribbean

Elsevier, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 116, 1 November 2022
Marrero A., Anderson E., De La Vega C., Beltran V., Haneuse S., Golden C. et al.

Background: In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), historical shifts away from traditional, plant-sourced food production and consumption patterns may undermine both nutritional status and environmental sustainability. Although agricultural intensification and increasingly animal-centric dietary preferences in the region are well-documented, their influence on environmental degradation remains unknown. Objectives: This study aimed to 1) characterize the environmental impacts of current food consumption patterns in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean; and 2) identify food groups that minimize impact while maintaining adequate nutrient availability. Methods: Apparent regional food consumption was derived using data from the FAO's Food Balance Sheets on per capita food availability and levels of imported and local food production. Region-specific life cycle assessment data on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs), land use, and freshwater consumption were leveraged to estimate total, food group-level, and nutrient-specific environmental impacts. Results: Annual overall GHGEs were highest in Caribbean food consumption patterns (2521.2 kg/capita), largely derived from meat (26.7%) and fruit (23.8%) production. Land use (1941.0 m2/capita) and water consumption (2060.8 m3/capita), in contrast, were highest for the South American pattern, owing to high consumption of meat and dairy. Across the regions, meat constituted 7.5%-12.7% of food consumption yet accounted for as much as 73.1% of GHGEs, 56.6% of land use, and 54.2% of water consumption. In contrast, legumes and seeds, cereals, roots, and vegetables demonstrated overall low environmental impacts, particularly relative to their contributions to dietary protein, iron, and zinc availability. Conclusions: Findings point to the capacity of plant-sourced food consumption to minimize environmental harm without necessarily jeopardizing nutrient availability in LAC. Local agriculture can contribute to food system sustainability by producing diversified plant-sourced foods, cornerstones of many traditional food customs, and mitigating the impacts of industrialized livestock operations and imported, animal-centric dietary habits.