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Gender as a factor in an environmental assessment of the consumption of animal and plant-based foods in Germany

Abstract

Purpose

Due to their production intensity, different foods of animal or plant origin play a crucial role in the assessment of the environmental impacts of human nutrition and diets. Based on a representative nutrition survey in Germany from the year 2006, a life cycle assessment (LCA) was conducted to quantify nutrition-related emissions of animal and plant-based foods (excluding beverages), with a special focus on the socio-demographic factor gender.

Materials and methods

For the study, representative data sets concerning German food production and consumption were used. These were complemented by the Danish LCA Food database and other LCA data to analyse the impact of food imports. As regards environmental impact assessment, global warming potential (GWP) was assessed, which included emissions from direct land use change and land use (dLUC, LU), along with three inventory indicators (ammonia emissions, land use, blue water use). The following food groups were analysed from cradle-to-store and their impacts were evaluated and compared with each other: animal-based foods (meat products, milk products, egg products and fish products), plant-based foods (grain products, vegetables, fruits, potato products, margarine/oils, sugar/sweets). The reference year in the study is the year 2006.

Results and discussion

For all indicators, the results show strong variation between the genders. Even if the physiologically different consumption patterns among men and women are adjusted on a weight basis, men show a higher impact in terms of GWP (CO2 eq. +25%), ammonia emissions (+30%) and land use (+24%). In contrast, women demonstrate a higher water demand (+11%). These differences are primarily caused by a higher share of meat and meat products in the usual diet of men (+28%) as well as of fruit and vegetables in the diet of women (+40%). If men were to shift qualitatively to the usual diet of women, then 14.8 Mt CO2 eq. and 60.1 kt ammonia emissions could be saved annually. Within the system boundaries of our study, this would translate into a reduction of 12% of CO2 eq. and 14% of ammonia emissions. With regard to land use, this equals an area of 15,613 km2 year−1 (−11%), whereas the total blue water demand would be increased by 94 Mm3 year−1 (+7%). Limitations within this study are caused by the system boundaries cradle-to-store and are also due to the restricted set of environmental indicators which were analysed. Nonetheless, our results for GWP and land use are in keeping with previous studies. The results concerning ammonia and blue water use are limited when compared with other study results.

Conclusions

The study shows that within one society distinct diet profiles with markedly different environmental impacts are already established. Taking cultural and physiological considerations among the genders into account, these differences could be seen as offering potential opportunities to strengthen sustainable diet profiles. Further research should also consider health impact assessments to ensure that alterations in diet profiles due to environmental constraints do not lead to disadvantageous public health effects. Particular attention should be paid here to potentially undernourished subgroups (such as the elderly, sick people, pregnant women).

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Acknowledgements

We thank the German Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt) and the Max-Rubner Institute for supporting this research.

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Correspondence to Toni Meier.

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Responsible editor: Niels Jungbluth

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Meier, T., Christen, O. Gender as a factor in an environmental assessment of the consumption of animal and plant-based foods in Germany. Int J Life Cycle Assess 17, 550–564 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-012-0387-x

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Keywords

  • Agri-food sector
  • Diet profiles
  • Diet shift
  • Direct land use change/land use (dLUC/LU)
  • Hybrid-LCA
  • Input–output analysis
  • National Nutrition Survey II
  • Nutrition patterns