Biodiversity impacts of nutrition in Germany

For the first time, the impact of nutrition in Germany on biodiversity has been determined. The study “So schmeckt Zukunft: Der kulinarische Kompass für eine gesunde Erde. Nutrition and Biodiversity” was published today by WWF Germany. The study is based on a life cycle assessment prepared by corsus – corporate sustainability GmbH for WWF.
How does nutrition in Germany affect biodiversity globally and in Germany? What share of the German biodiversity footprint do different foods have? What about our diet has a particularly negative impact on habitats and species? Where does our diet pose a major threat to biodiversity? What opportunities for biodiversity conservation lie in changing eating habits? What potential for biodiversity conservation lies in a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet that is aligned with planetary impact limits? These questions are answered in the study.
It is only in the last few years that methods have been available for assessing the impact on biodiversity of products and services as part of a life cycle assessment. In the context of the study for WWF, the life cycle impact assessment method of Lindner et al. (2019) was used. The method assesses the quality of the land used for food production and compares it to the quality of the natural vegetation originally present on the land. This results in a quality difference – the biodiversity value increment (BVI).
The impact of animal foods (meat and sausage products, eggs and dairy products such as milk or cheese) is even more significant in terms of biodiversity impact than for the land footprint or the climate footprint. In total, 77 percent of the biodiversity footprint is attributable to animal-based foods. For the area footprint, the figure is 75 percent and for the climate footprint, 69 percent. In contrast, the impact of plant-based foods on the biodiversity footprint is only 23 percent.

Biodiversity footprint (left) and area footprint of food in Germany in comparison (green = plant-based food, pink = Animal food)

The high impact of animal foods is mainly due to the biodiversity impact of soybean cultivation, which accounts for by far the largest share of the biodiversity footprint at 29 percent, followed by wheat (15 percent) and corn (12 percent). The impact due to soybean cultivation is significantly higher than land use would suggest and about twice that of wheat (15 percent), although land use by soybean is actually slightly lower. This is mainly explained by the fact that the ecoregions where soy is grown (e.g., the Cerrado in Brazil) are considered more ecologically valuable than the ecoregions where wheat is grown (e.g., the mixed forests in Europe).

Biodiversity impacts could be significantly reduced if we were to implement the recommendations for a so-called Planetary Health Diet. A flexitarian diet could reduce the biodiversity footprint by 18 percent, a vegetarian diet by as much as 46 percent, and a vegan diet by 49 percent.
The greatest biodiversity impacts from our current diets are caused in Europe, South America and the United States. For all diets, the highest impacts are in Germany, even though the eco¬region factors of the ecosystems found here are relatively low. This is explained by the fact that by far the largest proportion of land used to produce the food we demand is in Germany.

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