What If We All Became Vegetarians?

Photo: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

More plants, less meat: switching to a vegetarian diet could prevent up to two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions and save millions of lives, according to one study.

There are strong arguments for eating more fruits and vegetables: fewer harmful emissions from animals in the meat industry or simply a healthier diet.  Yet which effects can our diet have on our health and environment exactly?

Marco Springmann and his colleagues at the University of Oxford studied the degree to which the shift to a plant-based diet would affect the mortality rate and the production of greenhouse gases worldwide.

10 Percent Fewer Cases of Premature Death

In order to compare the effects of our diet on the climate, Springmann’s team proposed four dietary models:

  • More of the same: increased consumption of animal products
  • Following today’s recommended dietary guidelines (less meat and sugar and fewer calories)
  • Ovo-lacto-vegetarianism: meat-free diet, with eggs and milk
  • Total plant-based diet: veganism

The researchers analyzed these four scenarios for their effects on health and environmental outcomes. Their projections through 2050 show that the second scenario with decreased meat consumption could eliminate 5-6 million cases of premature death per year. This is equivalent to decreasing the mortality rate by 6-10 percent. Vegetarian and vegan diets would eliminate 7-8 million deaths per year. The reasons include the decrease in meat consumption (especially red meat) as well as an increase in fruits and vegetables, with an overall decrease in calories, as Springmann told The Conversation.

You can find the entire study under Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The scientists note large regional differences in their estimates. Developing countries in south and east Asia benefit most from a plant-based diet. This was followed closely by developed countries in which the per capita benefit could be twice as high – in the end, these countries are the ones in which people have the least balanced diets. China would reap the largest benefits of a plant-based diet, with up to 1.7 million lives saved every year.

70 Percent Fewer Harmful Emissions

But what is the effect of the reduction in harmful emissions caused by animals in the meat industry? These could also be reduced by over two thirds, according to the study published in PNAS in early 2016. In the study’s summary, a vegetarian diet across the entire planet would reduce the greenhouse gases produced by farmed animals by 63 percent. A global vegan diet would bring that number to 70 percent.

In conclusion, more vegetables and less meat on our plate is good for our climate, could prevent the premature deaths of millions of people – and last but not least, would also save millions of animals from slaughter.

by Victoria Scherff

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