Study reveals tremendous benefits of eating less meat

Reducing global meat consumption could improve health, the environment, and the economy. It's a win-win situation for all.

Implementing dietary change across the globe could have multiple health, environmental, and economic benefits. A new study looks at the effects of eating less meat and finds, in a fascinating intersection of issues, that reducing meat consumption would improve human health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and decrease healthcare costs significantly. In other words, it could be a win-win situation for all if the biggest hurdle – dietary change – is achieved.

Four sustainability researchers from the University of Oxford published their findings in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences earlier this week. It is groundbreaking work that they say is “the first time, to our knowledge” that models for health and emissions have been linked together in this way.

We know that what we eat affects the planet. Ruminant animals such as cows and lambs, belch methane gas into the atmosphere as part of their digestive process. Cattle in particular create large quantities of waste that also emit methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (although its molecules have a much shorter atmospheric life than CO2). Meat consumption also drives emissions by being the main reason for tropical deforestation. When places like the Amazon are cut down to create more space for cattle grazing, the planet loses major storage areas for carbon.

For this study, the researchers used a computerized model to examine the outcomes of four dietary scenarios, both in different regions of the world and the planet as a whole, by 2050. The four scenarios are:

(1) A “business as usual” approach based on predictions from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; this scenario was used as the reference point for the study
(2) A “healthy global diets” scenario in which people adopt the global dietary guidelines for healthy eating and consume just enough calories to maintain a healthy body weight; it includes at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, less than 50g of sugar, and a max of 43g of meat daily
(3) A vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy, 6 servings of fruits and vegetables, and 1 portion of pulses
(4) A completely plant-based vegan diet, with 7 servings of fruits and vegetables and 1 portion of pulses

“The three non-reference scenarios are not intended to be realizable dietary outcomes on a global level but are designed to explore the range of possible environmental and health outcomes of progressively excluding more animal-sourced foods from human diets.”

The outcomes show that eating fewer animal-sourced foods could make a big difference in a lot of ways.

First, humans would be healthier. Adoption of the “healthier global diet” by 2050 could save 5.1 million deaths per year, with 7.3 million lives saved by vegetarianism and 8.1 million for veganism. This is because eating less meat reduces the prevalence of chronic, non-communicable diseases associated with high body weight and unhealthy diets.

Second, dietary changes toward less animal-sourced foods can help mitigate an expected growth in food-related greenhouse gas emissions. The Washington Post reports:

“With the healthy diet that still contained some meat, global greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector only increased 7 percent by 2050, compared with an expectation of a 51 percent increase under business as usual. Again, the vegetarian and vegan diets had even sharper effects on emissions.”

Third, there would be economic benefits due to lower healthcare costs and fewer lost workdays associated with deaths from specific diseases caused by poor diet, adding up to an impressive savings of between $700 and $1,000 billion annually.

graph from meat study© PNAS - Graph shows economic, healthcare, and environmental benefits of eating less meat. HGD - health global diets, VGT - vegetarian, VGN - vegan

It all sounds great, but to implement such dietary changes would be a tremendous task. The researchers admit it is idealistic and that “in truth, it is not expected that the world’s human population will get enough fruits and vegetables, or even food as a whole, over the first half of this century.” Indeed, for any of the three models (besides the reference point) to be achieved, a much greater quantity of fruits and vegetables would have to be available – a 25 percent increase for the healthy global diet, with 56 percent less meat – and higher yet for the vegetarian/vegan scenarios.

The meat industry is not happy with the study’s conclusion. Janet Riley, senior vice president of the North American Meat Institute, says, “We disagree with the premise of the study.” It is unsurprising that there would be serious pushback from meat producers, not to mention the many people who enjoy their steak.

Still, this study is an important part of the discussion about how diet affects climate change. Shifting to a global mostly plant-based diet may seem absurdly idealistic, but change can happen. Just think how our diets have altered dramatically from the time of our grandparents. Many people are already choosing to shift their diets away from meat as they understand the profoundly positive implications of doing so.

Tags: Agriculture | Animals | Diet | Food Security | Fruits & Vegetables | Vegan | Vegetarian

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