Vegetarian and vegan diets could save millions of lives and cut global warming, study finds

Eating more plant-based food could drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, the study found 

Millions of lives could be saved annually by the year 2050 if people adopt vegetarian diets, a new study has found.

Cutting down on meat consumption worldwide would also protect the planet by cutting emissions by two thirds, and avoid over $1trillion in costs linked to climate change and healthcare, according to research published in by Oxford University.

Dr Marco Springmann, lead author of the study conducted at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, highlighted that a person’s diet “greatly influences” their health and the global environment. 

“Imbalanced diets, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables, and high in red and processed meat, are responsible for the greatest health burden globally and in most regions,” he said. 

“At the same time the food system is also responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore a major driver of climate change.”

To make their findings published in the journal ‘Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences’, the team predicted how four different dietary scenarios would impact the planet and people's health. 

These involved the global population: continuing on the current trajectory; adopting diets including the minimum recommending levels of vegetables and fruit; limiting the intake of red meat, sugar and total calories; and adopting vegetarian and vegan diets which comply with health guidelines.

Researchers found that leading a vegan lifestyle would save 8.1million lives by 2050, while vegetarianism could save 7.3million. And simply following the minimum global dietary guidelines could save 5.1million deaths. 

Cutting down red meat alone accounted for half of the avoided deaths, while the other half was down due to a reduction in obesity linked to a rise in fruit and vegetable intake and cut in calories eaten. 

The study also highlighted the grave impact that food has on global warming.

Currently, greenhouse gas emissions linked to food make up half of the pollution that the planet can afford to maintain if global warming its to be kept below 2°C. 

But 70 per cent of food-related emissions would be cut if people adopted a vegan diet, dropping to 63 per cent with a vegetarian diet. Meanwhile, following global dietary guidelines would be cut emissions by 29 per cent. 

When economic benefits were assessed, researchers found that changing how we currently eat would save between $700 to $1,000billion each year in healthcare, unpaid informal care and lost working days worldwide.

Researchers believe that the study is the first to estimate how plant-based diets affect worldwide health and climate change. 

"Putting a dollar value on good health and the environment is a sensitive issue," said Dr Springmann.

"Yet, our results indicate that dietary changes could have large benefits to society, and the value of those benefits makes a strong case for increased public and private spending on programmes aimed to achieve healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets."

Nicolas Hewitt, Distinguished Professor at Lancaster University Environment Centre, said that the study confirms what his research and that of others has already shown.

"Consumer choices around food have significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. Eliminating meat from the diet can reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by about 35 per cent and changing from carbon-intensive beef and lamb to less carbon-intensive pork and chicken can reduce food-related carbon emissions by about 18 per cent.

"Overall, changing to a vegan diet can reduce food-related emissions by about a quarter, which in the UK represents about 40 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions every year. This is equivalent to about half of the total CO2 emissions from the entire UK passenger car fleet."

"If society is serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then we should be trying to make savings in every area of our day-to-day activities, including in our diet."

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