Everybody knows what a healthy diet would look like: Lots of cereal, potatoes and rice, plenty of vegetables and only a little meat. Still, most of us eat excessive amounts of sausages and meat products. This does not only harm us, but the environment too. Together with an interdisciplinary team of scientists, Professor Matthias Zessner from the TU Vienna has now tried to find out, what it would mean for the environment, if people switched to a healthier diet. The result: it would help to save resources and cultivable land. Eating organic food has less far-reaching consequences. If you want to benefit yourself and the environment, eating fruit and vegetables turns out to be much more important than going organic.
In Austria, 3600 square meters of soil are needed to feed the average person. Matthias Zessner calculated, how this would change if people adhered to official nutrition guidelines. The meat consumption would have to be reduced by half, the consumption of vegetables and cereal would increase. “This would not only lower cancer rates and reduce the number of cardiovascular diseases, the area required for the production of food would be reduced from 3600 square meters to 2600 square meters per person”, Matthias Zessner says. A healthier diet would also reduce energy consumption in food production, and considerably less fertilizer would be needed. Our carbon dioxide emissions would decrease as well – a well-balanced diet would save a third of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in food production.
Switching to organic food on the other hand, is not necessarily a good solution. Organic food production needs less fertilizer, but as the production intensity is lower, it requires even larger areas. Switching to organic food production would therefore even exacerbate the problem of limited cultivable land, increasing the dependence on food imports.
food production today
food production for
energy demand (kWh per person and year)
greenhouse gas production
water contamination (nitrogen)
water contamination (phosphor)
Prof. Matthias Zessner
Institut für Wassergüte, Ressourcenmanagement und Abfallwirtschaft
Technische Universität Wien
Karlsplatz 13, 1040 Wien