Culturally appropriate shifts in staple grain consumption can improve multiple sustainability outcomes

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Environmental Research Letters
Diets exercise great influence over both human and environmental health. While numerous efforts have sought to define and identify sustainable diets, there remains a poor understanding of the extent to which such shifts are feasible when taking into account local dietary preferences. Accounting for 40% of dietary calories and 46% of global cropland, cereals offer an important food group by which culturally appropriate dietary shifts may achieve large sustainability benefits. Here we combine country-specific information on dietary cereal supply with nutrient content values, CO2 nutrient penalties, and environmental footprints to quantify the outcomes of adopting two feasible dietary shifts—maximizing the share of C4 cereals (e.g. maize, millet, sorghum) based on historical shares and increasing the share of whole grains. Our results show that increasing the share of whole grains can increase nutrient supply (+7% protein, +37% iron, +42% zinc) and overcome the nutrient-depleting effects of elevated CO2 (eCO2) and that maximizing the share of C4 cereals can substantially reduce environmental burden (−12% greenhouse gas emissions, −11% blue water demand), particularly in Africa and the Middle East. We also find that a combination of the two strategies would likely produce strong co-benefits between increased nutrient supply and reduced environmental impacts with mixed outcomes for offsetting the effects of eCO2. Such simultaneous improvements are particularly important for food insecure regions such as West Africa and Southeast Asia. These findings demonstrate important opportunities to identify sustainable diets that incorporate local preferences and cultural acceptability. Such considerations are essential when developing demand-side solutions to achieve more sustainable food systems.
This article was originally published in Environmental Research Letters. The version of record is available at:
dietary shifts, sustainable diets, C4 crops, whole grains, food security
Dongyang Wei and Kyle Frankel Davis 2021 Environ. Res. Lett. 16 125006