Plant-based diets are essential to avoid catastrophic climate change

A global shift towards healthy and more plant-based diets, halving food loss and waste, and improving farming practices and technologies are required to feed 10 billion people sustainably by 2050, according to a study published in the journal Nature (https://www.ndph.ox.ac.uk/news/feeding-10-billion-people-by-2050-within-planetary-limits-may-be-achievable-say-researchers). Study leader Dr Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford warned that: “the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50-90% by 2050 as a result of population growth and the rise of diets high in fats, sugars and meat (whereupon) all planetary boundaries related to food production would be surpassed, some of them by more than twofold.” Conversely, adopting predominantly plant-based diets globally could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than half, and also reduce other environmental impacts, such as fertilizer application and the use of cropland and freshwater, by a tenth to a quarter.  To achieve this, Dr Springmann called for: “comprehensive policy and business approaches … to make dietary changes towards healthy and more plant-based diets possible and attractive for a large number of people (including) school and workplace programmes, economic incentives and labelling, and aligning national dietary guidelines with the current scientific evidence on healthy eating.”

Almost simultaneously, a related paper was published in The Lancet (https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lanplh/PIIS2542-5196(18)30206-7.pdf).  The paper examined the health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts using a global modelling analysis covering more than 150 countries. Three diet scenarios were considered: one based on environmental objectives, replacing varying amounts of animal-source foods with plant-based foods; another based on food security objectives, aimed at reducing levels of underweight, overweight, and obesity; and a third based on public health objectives, examining flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets. The low-meat flexitarian and meatless diets were found to be “in line with available evidence on healthy eating” whilst leading to “large reductions in premature mortality” (by 22% for the vegan diet) and markedly reducing “environmental impacts globally (reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 54–87%, nitrogen application by 23–25%, phosphorus application by 18–21%, cropland use by 8–11%, and freshwater use by 2–11%)”.  The authors concluded that: “a public health strategy focused on improving energy balance and dietary changes towards predominantly plant-based diets … is a suitable approach for sustainable diets.”

[The issues raised in these papers will be among those to be considered at a multi-disciplinary research conference at St Anne’s College, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HS, on Wednesday 7 November, 9 am – 7 pm. The effects of meat and dairy on population health, the economy, society and the environment is organised by the Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) project and sponsored by the Wellcome Trust. The registration fee (£30; student/unwaged £15) includes all refreshments during the conference and a vegetarian/vegan buffet lunch.]

Paul Appleby

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