Environmental analyses to inform transitions to sustainable diets in developing countries: case studies for Vietnam and Kenya



Sustainable diets are an environmental, economic, and public health imperative, but identifying clear intervention points is challenging. Decision-making will require descriptive analyses from a variety of perspectives, even under the inevitable uncertainty introduced by limited data. This study uses existing data to provide a diet-level perspective on environmental impact from food production in the case study countries of Vietnam and Kenya.


FAO food supply data at decadal time steps were used as a proxy for national average diets in Vietnam and Kenya. We combined these data with estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) and water use impact associated with producing food commodities. Generic GHGE factors were derived from a survey of the life cycle assessment literature. Country- and commodity-specific blue water use estimates were used, reflecting country-of-origin for import-dominated commodities. The AWARE characterization model was used to offer a diet-associated water scarcity footprint. Trends in diet-associated environmental impacts were interpreted in light of diet shifts, economic development trends, and other factors.

Results and discussion

Increasing per capita food supply in Vietnam, and in particular increases in meat, have led to rising diet-associated per capita GHGE. While supply of beef remains 5.2 times smaller than pork—the dominant meat—increases in beef demand in the past decade have resulted in it becoming second only to rice in contribution to diet GHGE. The water use and water scarcity footprint in Vietnam follow an increasing trend comparable to food supply. On the other hand, historically consistent levels of dairy and beef in Kenya dominate diet-level GHGE. Water use associated with the Kenyan diet shows marked increases between the 1990s and 2000s due to imports of wheat and rice from water-stressed regions. Environmental performance data for characteristic food production systems in these and other developing countries are needed to improve the representativeness and reliability of such assessments.


Despite data limitations, the methods and results presented here may offer a fresh perspective in sustainable development policy deliberations, as they offer an entry point to linking environmental impact and consumption behaviors and can elucidate otherwise obscure or unexpected outcomes. A clear need emerges for further environmental analysis of dominant production systems within both Vietnam and Kenya.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6


  1. 1.

    GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP). PPP GDP is gross domestic product converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity rates. An international dollar has the same purchasing power over GDP as the US dollar has in the USA. Data are in constant 2011 international dollars.


  1. Abson DJ, Fischer J, Leventon J, Newig J, Schomerus T, Vilsmaier U, von Wehrden H, Abernethy P, Ives CD, Jager NW, Lang DJ (2017) Leverage points for sustainability transformation. Ambio 46:30–39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Aleksandrowicz L, Green R, Joy EJ, Smith P, Haines A (2016) The impacts of dietary change on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and health: a systematic review. PLoS One 11:e0165797

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Asia Beef Network (2018) Vietnam country profile: cattle production systems. http://www.asiabeefnetwork.com/country-profiles/viet-nam/cattle-production-systems/. Accessed Jan 2019

  4. Battersby J (2017) MDGs to SDGs – new goals, same gaps: the continued absence of urban food security in the post-2015 global development agenda. African Geographical Review 36:115–129. https://doi.org/10.1080/19376812.2016.1208769

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Béné C, Oosterveer P, Lamotte L, Brouwer ID, de Haan S, Prager SD, Talsma EF, Khoury CK (2019) When food systems meet sustainability–current narratives and implications for actions. World Dev 113:116–130

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Benny L, Duc LT, Hang NTT (2017) Growth and nutrition: preliminary findings from the round 5 survey in Vietnam. Young Lives. https://younglives.org.uk/content/growth-and-nutrition-preliminary-findings-round-5-survey-vietnam. Accessed 15 Jan 2019

  7. Blackstone NT, El-Abbadi NH, McCabe MS, Griffin TS, Nelson ME (2018) Linking sustainability to the healthy eating patterns of the dietary guidelines for Americans: a modelling study. Lancet Planetary Health 2:e344–e352

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Blesh J, Hoey L, Jones AD, Friedmann H, Perfecto I (2019) Development pathways toward “zero hunger”. World Dev 118:1–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2019.02.004

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bong BB (2000) Bridging the rice yield gap in Vietnam. FAO. http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/x6905e/x6905e0e.htm

  10. Boulay A-M, Bare J, Benini L, Berger M, Lathuillière MJ, Manzardo A, Margni M, Motoshita M, Núñez M, Pastor AV, Ridoutt B, Oki T, Worbe S, Pfister S (2018) The WULCA consensus characterization model for water scarcity footprints: assessing impacts of water consumption based on available water remaining (AWARE). Int J Life Cycle Assess 23:368–378

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Brandt P, Herold M, Rufino MC (2018) The contribution of sectoral climate change mitigation options to national targets: a quantitative assessment of dairy production in Kenya. Environ Res Lett 13:034016. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac84

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Chaudhary A, Gustafson D, Mathys A (2018) Multi-indicator sustainability assessment of global food systems. Nat Commun 9:848. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-03308-7

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Del Gobbo LC et al (2015) Assessing global dietary habits: a comparison of national estimates from the FAO and the Global Dietary Database. Am J Clin Nutr 101:1038–1046. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.087403

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. FAO (2018a) FAOSTAT food balance sheets. http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/FBS. Accessed 8 June 2018

  15. FAO (2018b) Kenya cattle and poultry sectors: livestock and livelihoods spotlight. I8978EN. http://www.fao.org/3/I8978EN/i8978en.pdf

  16. FAO (2018c) Kenya cattle and poultry sectors: livestock production systems spotlight. i8270en. http://www.fao.org/3/i8270en/I8270EN.pdf

  17. Fesenfeld LP, Schmidt TS, Schrode A (2018) Climate policy for short- and long-lived pollutants. Nat Clim Chang 8:933–936. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0328-1

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Green RF, Joy EJM, Harris F, Agrawal S, Aleksandrowicz L, Hillier J, Macdiarmid JI, Milner J, Vetter SH, Smith P, Haines A, Dangour AD (2018) Greenhouse gas emissions and water footprints of typical dietary patterns in India. Sci Total Environ 643:1411–1418. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.06.258

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Hallstrom E, Carlsson-Kanyama A, Borjesson P (2015) Environmental impact of dietary change: a systematic review. J Clean Prod 91:1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.12.008

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Hansen A (2018) Meat consumption and capitalist development: the meatification of food provision and practice in Vietnam. Geoforum 93:57–68

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Harris F, Green RF, Joy EJ, Kayatz B, Haines A, Dangour AD (2017) The water use of Indian diets and socio-demographic factors related to dietary blue water footprint. Sci Total Environ 587:128–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.02.085

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. He P, Baiocchi G, Hubacek K, Feng K, Yu Y (2018) The environmental impacts of rapidly changing diets and their nutritional quality in China. Nature Sustainability 1:122

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Heller MC, Willits-Smith A, Meyer R, Keoleian GA, Rose D (2018) Greenhouse gas emissions and energy use associated with production of individual self-selected U.S. diets. Environ Res Lett 13:044004. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aab0ac

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Herrero M, Grace D, Njuki J, Johnson N, Enahoro D, Silvestri S, Rufino MC (2013) The roles of livestock in developing countries. Animal 7:3–18. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1751731112001954

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. IPCC (2007) Climate change 2007: synthesis report. Contribution of working groups I, II, and III to the fourth assessment. International Panel on Climate Change, International Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland

  26. IPCC (2013) Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA

  27. ISO (2014) Environmental management - water footprint - principles, requirements and guidelines. International Organization for Standardization ISO 14046:2014

  28. Kanyinga K (2016) Devolution and the new politics of development in Kenya. Afr Stud Rev 59:155–167. https://doi.org/10.1017/asr.2016.85

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Khai NHTT, Tin HC, Sanh NV (2018) Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in rice grown in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Environment Pollution and Climate Change 2:158. https://doi.org/10.4172/2573-458X.1000158

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Kimani-Murage EW, Muthuri SK, Oti SO, Mutua MK, van de Vijver S, Kyobutungi C (2015) Evidence of a double burden of malnutrition in urban poor settings in Nairobi, Kenya. PLoS One 10:e0129943. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129943

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Koehler G (2015) Seven decades of ‘development’, and now what? J Int Dev 27:733–751. https://doi.org/10.1002/jid.3108

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Lim SS, Vos T, Flaxman AD, Danaei G, Shibuya K, Adair-Rohani H, AlMazroa MA, Amann M, Anderson HR, Andrews KG, Aryee M, Atkinson C, Bacchus LJ, Bahalim AN, Balakrishnan K, Balmes J, Barker-Collo S, Baxter A, Bell ML, Blore JD, Blyth F, Bonner C, Borges G, Bourne R, Boussinesq M, Brauer M, Brooks P, Bruce NG, Brunekreef B, Bryan-Hancock C, Bucello C, Buchbinder R, Bull F, Burnett RT, Byers TE, Calabria B, Carapetis J, Carnahan E, Chafe Z, Charlson F, Chen H, Chen JS, Cheng ATA, Child JC, Cohen A, Colson KE, Cowie BC, Darby S, Darling S, Davis A, Degenhardt L, Dentener F, Des Jarlais DC, Devries K, Dherani M, Ding EL, Dorsey ER, Driscoll T, Edmond K, Ali SE, Engell RE, Erwin PJ, Fahimi S, Falder G, Farzadfar F, Ferrari A, Finucane MM, Flaxman S, Fowkes FGR, Freedman G, Freeman MK, Gakidou E, Ghosh S, Giovannucci E, Gmel G, Graham K, Grainger R, Grant B, Gunnell D, Gutierrez HR, Hall W, Hoek HW, Hogan A, Hosgood HD III, Hoy D, Hu H, Hubbell BJ, Hutchings SJ, Ibeanusi SE, Jacklyn GL, Jasrasaria R, Jonas JB, Kan H, Kanis JA, Kassebaum N, Kawakami N, Khang YH, Khatibzadeh S, Khoo JP, Kok C, Laden F, Lalloo R, Lan Q, Lathlean T, Leasher JL, Leigh J, Li Y, Lin JK, Lipshultz SE, London S, Lozano R, Lu Y, Mak J, Malekzadeh R, Mallinger L, Marcenes W, March L, Marks R, Martin R, McGale P, McGrath J, Mehta S, Memish ZA, Mensah GA, Merriman TR, Micha R, Michaud C, Mishra V, Hanafiah KM, Mokdad AA, Morawska L, Mozaffarian D, Murphy T, Naghavi M, Neal B, Nelson PK, Nolla JM, Norman R, Olives C, Omer SB, Orchard J, Osborne R, Ostro B, Page A, Pandey KD, Parry CDH, Passmore E, Patra J, Pearce N, Pelizzari PM, Petzold M, Phillips MR, Pope D, Pope CA III, Powles J, Rao M, Razavi H, Rehfuess EA, Rehm JT, Ritz B, Rivara FP, Roberts T, Robinson C, Rodriguez-Portales JA, Romieu I, Room R, Rosenfeld LC, Roy A, Rushton L, Salomon JA, Sampson U, Sanchez-Riera L, Sanman E, Sapkota A, Seedat S, Shi P, Shield K, Shivakoti R, Singh GM, Sleet DA, Smith E, Smith KR, Stapelberg NJC, Steenland K, Stöckl H, Stovner LJ, Straif K, Straney L, Thurston GD, Tran JH, van Dingenen R, van Donkelaar A, Veerman JL, Vijayakumar L, Weintraub R, Weissman MM, White RA, Whiteford H, Wiersma ST, Wilkinson JD, Williams HC, Williams W, Wilson N, Woolf AD, Yip P, Zielinski JM, Lopez AD, Murray CJL, Ezzati M (2012) A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Lancet 380:2224–2260. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61766-8

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. MacRae R, Langer J, Cuddeford V (2012) Lessons from 20 years of CSO advocacy to advance sustainable pest management in Canada. In: MacRae R, Abergel E (eds) Health and sustainability in the Canadian food system: advocacy and opportunity for civil society. UBC Press, Vancouver, pp 127–152

    Google Scholar 

  34. Mason P, Lang T (2017) Sustainable diets: how ecological nutrition can transform consumption and the food system. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  35. Mekonnen MM, Hoekstra AY (2010a) The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. UNESCO-IHE, Delft, The Netherlands. No. 47

  36. Mekonnen MM, Hoekstra AY (2010b) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products. UNESCO-IHE, Delft, The Netherlands. No. 48

  37. Mekonnen MM, Hoekstra AY (2011) The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 15:1577–1600. https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-15-1577-2011

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Mekonnen MM, Hoekstra AY (2012) A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems 15:401–415. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-011-9517-8

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Minh Do L, Lissner L, Ascher H (2018) Overweight, stunting, and concurrent overweight and stunting observed over 3 years in Vietnamese children. Glob Health Action 11:1517932

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Nguyen T, Roehrig F, Grosjean G, Tran D, Vu T (2017) Climate smart agriculture in Vietnam. International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Hanoi, Vietnam. http://cgspace.cgiar.org/rest/bitstreams/155807/retrieve

  41. Poore J, Nemecek T (2018) Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360:987–992

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Popkin BM, Adair LS, Ng SW (2012) Global nutrition transition and the pandemic of obesity in developing countries. Nutr Rev 70:3–21

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Porter SD, Reay DS, Higgins P, Bomberg E (2016) A half-century of production-phase greenhouse gas emissions from food loss & waste in the global food supply chain. Sci Total Environ 571:721–729. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.07.041

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Pradhan P, Costa L, Rybski D, Lucht W, Kropp JP (2017) A systematic study of sustainable development goal (SDG) interactions. Earth’s Future 5:1169–1179

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Song G, Li M, Fullana-i-Palmer P, Williamson D, Wang Y (2017) Dietary changes to mitigate climate change and benefit public health in China. Sci Total Environ 577:289–298. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.10.184

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Springmann M, Wiebe K, Mason-D'Croz D, Sulser TB, Rayner M, Scarborough P (2018) Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts: a global modelling analysis with country-level detail. Lancet Planetary Health 2:e451–e461

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. The World Bank (2018) GDP per capita (current US$). https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD. Accessed Sept 7 2018

  48. Tilman D, Clark M (2014) Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515:518–522

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Tom MS, Fischbeck PS, Hendrickson CT (2016) Energy use, blue water footprint, and greenhouse gas emissions for current food consumption patterns and dietary recommendations in the US. Environment Systems and Decisions 36:92–103. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10669-015-9577-y

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Torbick N, Salas W, Chowdhury D, Ingraham P, Trinh M (2017) Mapping rice greenhouse gas emissions in the Red River Delta, Vietnam. Carbon Management 8:99–108. https://doi.org/10.1080/17583004.2016.1275816

  51. Trung ND, Anh LH, Thang NT, Sebastian LS (2017) The challenges in implementing Vietnam’s nationally-determined contribution (NDC) in the agriculture sector under the current supporting laws, regulations, and policies. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Wageningen, the Netherlands. CCAFS Working Paper No. 217. www.ccafs.cgiar.org

  52. Udo H, Weiler V, Modupeore O, Viets T, Oosting S (2016) Intensification to reduce the carbon footprint of smallholder milk production: fact or fiction? Outlook on Agriculture 45:33–38

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. UN FAO (2018) FAOSTAT Data portal. http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data . Accessed Jan 2019

  54. USAID (2016) Greenhouse gas emissions in Vietnam. https://www.climatelinks.org/resources/greenhouse-gas-emissions-factsheet-vietnam

  55. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (2017) Vietnam retail foods - sector report 2016

  56. Vanham D, Comero S, Gawlik BM, Bidoglio G (2018) The water footprint of different diets within European sub-national geographical entities. Nature Sustainability 1:518

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Vázquez-Rowe I, Larrea-Gallegos G, Villanueva-Rey P, Gilardino A (2017) Climate change mitigation opportunities based on carbon footprint estimates of dietary patterns in Peru. PLoS One 12:e0188182. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0188182

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Vázquez-Rowe I, Kahhat R, Larrea-Gallegos G, Ziegler K (2019) Peru’s road to climate action: are we on the right path? The role of life cycle methods to improve Peruvian national contributions. Sci Total Environ 659:249–266

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Vu T (2016) The revolutionary path to state formation in Vietnam: opportunities, conundrums, and legacies. J Vietnam Stud 11:267–297. https://doi.org/10.1525/vs.2016.11.3-4.267

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Walker C, Gibney ER, Hellweg S (2018) Comparison of environmental impact and nutritional quality among a European sample population–findings from the Food4Me study. Sci Rep 8:2330. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-20391-4

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Weiler V, Udo HMJ, Viets T, Crane TA, De Boer IJM (2014) Handling multi-functionality of livestock in a life cycle assessment: the case of smallholder dairying in Kenya. Curr Opin Environ Sustain 8:29–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2014.07.009

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. World Bank: CIAT (2015) Climate-smart agriculture in Kenya. The World Bank Group, Washington D.C.

  63. WRI (2017) CAIT climate data explorer. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC. https://cait.wri.org

  64. WULCA (2016) AWARE factors: sub-watershed and country level. http://www.wulca-waterlca.org/aware.html. Accessed Feb 2018

  65. Yamaguchi T, Tuan LM, Minamikawa K, Yokoyama S (2019) Assessment of the relationship between adoption of a knowledge-intensive water-saving technique and irrigation conditions in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Agric Water Manag 212:162–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2018.08.041

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work is funded through a grant from the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martin C. Heller.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Responsible editor: Hayo M.G. van der Werf

Electronic supplementary material


(DOCX 829 kb)


(XLSX 76 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Heller, M.C., Walchale, A., Heard, B.R. et al. Environmental analyses to inform transitions to sustainable diets in developing countries: case studies for Vietnam and Kenya. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 1183–1196 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-019-01656-0

Download citation


  • Decision-making
  • Diet
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Low- and middle-income countries
  • Sustainable development goals
  • Water use