Can a vegetarian diet save the planet?
Enthusiasts of vegetarian and vegan diets are quick to cite growing evidence that a reduction in the consumption of meat products is linked to the improvement of human health.
Now, new research has shown that the widespread adoption of meat-free diets could potentially save millions of lives, trillions of dollars and have a positive impact on the environment.
Researchers at Oxford University in the U.K. assessed four different scenarios in which they analysed humans consuming varying levels of meat to evaluate the links between diet, health and the environment.
According to the findings, the lowest level of meat consumption or a widespread adoption of the vegan diet could help avoid more than eight million deaths by 2050. A vegetarian diet would save 7.3 million lives.
"There is a general consensus that dietary change across the globe can have multiple health, environmental, and economic benefits," the researchers said.
With regard to environmental impacts, the researchers noted that dietary shifts could also be significant. Livestock alone account for more than 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and by 2050 the food sector could account for half of that figure if cuts in other sectors are implemented. A vegan or vegetarian diet could potentially cut those emissions by 70 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively.
The report findings also indicate that swapping diets could save $1 trillion annually by preventing health care costs and lost productivity, with that number rising to as much as $30 trillion annually when also considering the economic value of lost life.
The study also illustrates how the benefits of changing dietary patterns vary in different regions.
Some areas - particularly East Asia, Latin America and Western high-income countries - all benefited
from reduced red meat consumption. But in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa people will benefit the most from increased fruit and vegetable intake.
Researchers note such a plant-based diet would require a 25 per cent increase in the number of fruits and vegetables eaten globally and a 56 per cent reduction in red meat whereas, overall, the human species would need to consume 15 per cent fewer calories.
The research was first published in journal PNAS.