I think you will generally find that any culture that still maintains a traditional diet–one that is not provided by mass production and agribusiness–will be much kinder to the environment. If food is produced on a small scale and people are eating only what they need (sometimes it’s all that they can afford, too, but that’s another issue), then they are not only healthier, but they are taking less of a toll on the environment: they are not overtaxing agricultural fields, they are not processing the food and thus expending more energy and creating more waste, they may be sourcing the food more locally (particularly if they’re growing it themselves) and don’t need to transport it, and they aren’t eating so darn much of it!
You can also consider diets that are more vegetarian, but this is not always a guarantee. There are some cultures whose diets consist mostly of meat (think of the Maasai, who subsist on meat, blood, and milk) who have VERY sustainable systems. Then there are the large-scale cattle ranches that produce tons of waste and require untold inputs. Sometimes concepts of locality and scale matter more than the vegan v. omnivore debate.
Pollan, M. 2008. In Defense of Food. New York City, NY: Penguin Group.
monicadee has made the important points — with the help of Michael Pollan 🙂
But also, including the historical perspective, an important consideration is that any wealthy society tends to develop cuisine that is environmentally bad. That is, people don’t often eat grass-fed, air-cured, hand-massaged beef, and eat Beluga caviar, and drink champagne — but many people would if they could!
“National cuisines” can appear quite eco-friendly if only what the poorest people eat is considered!
A prime example of excess is the ancient Romans. The general populace ate quite modest food, all of it easily sustainable over 100s of years. The same was not true of the ancient Roman patricians. Their mindless greed for delicacies such as hummingbird tongue is believed to have eliminated several species from North Africa!
It’s only in recent decades, much to the credit of our modern civilization (for a change), that people worldwide have been giving serious consideration to whether some foods should be widely eaten.
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