Diaspora Diets: How Food Culture In The Caribbean Helps The Environment

More people are stressing vegan diets to limit carbon emissions, but are other diets just as helpful?

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| July 22 2019,

09:21 am

Within the last decade, there has been a growing demographic of Americans advocating for diets with less or no meat. Although few Americans claim to be vegetarian (5% in 2018), and even fewer claim to be vegan (3% in 2018), the number of Americans expressing interest in more plant-based diets is noticeably rising. Converts to plant-based diets are usually persuaded to reduce or eliminate meat from their diets by the well-documented health benefits (a long-standing draw of vegetarianism) or, more recently, by plant-based diets’ environmental benefits.


As green initiatives in the U.S. find mixed governmental support, governments of small island nations in the Caribbean have actively encouraged and pursued sustainable initiatives. For example, in 2014, Barbados pledged that by the end of the next decade, it would produce 29% of its energy from renewable sources. This pledge exceeds that of any American energy goal but is commonplace within the region. As the Caribbean region is continuously battered by intensified hurricanes due to global warming, its leaders have pursued ambitious mitigation and resilience initiatives as a matter of survival. In an interview with the Inter Press Service, Douglas Slater, assistant secretary-general at the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat, recounted the Caribbean community’s commitment to tackling climate change. At the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24), CARICOM “insisted that [global temperature increases] should be no more than 1.5°C,” instead of the 2°C that larger nations agreed upon. In adhering to its own goals, the Caribbean, a region that is over two-thirds Black, has had to develop actionable objectives in addressing climate change. Island eating habits, however, also illuminate a food culture that, relative to other nations, is extraordinarily climate-sensitive.

The average Caribbean diet is incredibly omnivorous. Its foundation is a diverse array of meats, varied seawater fish, and plenty of tropical and temperate fruits and vegetables. American environmental activists who support plant-based diets would expect that a meat-based diet like this one would be just as stressful on the climate as the current U.S. diet. Interestingly, data from the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT) analyzed with the 2018 Nature study deliver totally different conclusions.

Assuming that 2010 food consumption and production data would accurately predict 2050 climate conditions, if the entire U.S. population switched to totally plant-based diets, the annual per capita GHG emissions (in kilograms of carbon dioxide) from this food production would still be almost twice as high as the omnivorous food production of the Caribbean. For scale, a single American vegan in this scenario would still annually produce eight average backyard swimming pools worth of carbon dioxide (CO2) from just the lifecycle of their food consumption. CO2’s role in global warming is a well-understood negative outcome of GHG emissions, but its emissions would also acidify oceans, destabilizing aquatic ecosystems and further destabilizing global food production. The difference in the GHG emissions produced by these two regions is startling but only superficially surprising.

FAOSTAT data depicts the Caribbean’s animal-based diet composition as not only diverse but also environmentally optimal relative to other omnivorous diets. In 2010, the U.S. only produced about 3% of its animal sustenance from fish. The Caribbean, conversely, received 8% of its meat from fish. This difference is significant because terrestrial meats (often chicken and beef), at best, produce four times as much GHG as fish. At worst, terrestrial meats are over 100 times more CO2 productive than fish. Even where certain types of fish are caught affects emissions from meat production. Per capita, the U.S. produced approximately two and a half times as much GHG from freshwater fish than the Caribbean. This preference for freshwater fish is environmentally suboptimal, as freshwater fish can produce upwards of 15 times more carbon dioxide than other types of fish.

The animal-based component of the Caribbean diet clearly has its environmental advantages, but even its plant-based diet appears more environmentally sound than that of the U.S. 2010 FAOSTAT data indicates a deep American love of rice, nuts, and seeds (staple foods for most vegans in the U.S.). These foods have long-standing human health benefits, but they also produce the most carbon dioxide among plant-based foods. Their prolific nature as GHG emitters is so substantial that in 2010, the U.S. produced 33% more carbon dioxide per capita from rice, nut, and seed production than the Caribbean did from the same food sources. This disparity, a function of how much these foods were and continue to be produced in America, likely means that the average American consumes more of these food groups in one sitting than they should.

Though U.S. overproduction of certain plant-based crops has adversely affected the climate viability of its diet, excessive production of certain plant-based products can actually be a boon for climate consciousness. 2010 numbers showed that nearly 13% of the meat-free part of the Caribbean diet was root vegetables, primarily in the form of cassava and yams. Because root vegetables have the second-lowest carbon footprint of any plant-based food group, only around 6% of all plant-based emissions in the Caribbean were derived from root vegetables. American root production (mainly potatoes), however, offered few environmental payoffs, as it barely approached 5% of U.S. plant-based food production. This led to the plant-based portion of the Caribbean diet producing one-fifth of the per capita carbon emissions as the U.S.

Food sustainability and its impact on climate change will continue to be highlighted as humanity interacts with a worsening climate. Fortunately, predictive modeling can help us determine how to best design nourishing yet environmentally aware diets. As environmental groups look to provide guidance on how humanity should proceed in feeding itself, they would be wise to incorporate some of the diaspora's dietary traditions. These dietary habits provide excellent insight into how an environmentally prudent diet, either plant-based or omnivorous, could be created and sustained.


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