Between now and 2050, a global switch to diets that rely far less on meat and far more on vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods could not only save up to 8 million lives per year, and reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds. Such a change would also save, in reduced health care costs and reduced costs from climate change, up to $31 trillion.
Does that sound like the wild-eyed claim made by some group with a vegetarian agenda? It’s actually the conclusions of a major new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week.
The researchers looked at the environmental, health, and economic impacts of various food pathways. They modeled four different dietary scenarios for the year 2050:
- A “business as usual” scenario based on projections of future diets;
- A scenario based on global dietary guidelines, which includes meeting the minimum suggested level of fruits and vegetables, and limits to the amount of red meat, sugar, and total calories;
- A vegetarian scenario, which conformed to the dietary guidelines; and
- A vegan scenario, which also conformed to the dietary guidelines.
Their conclusion was that, compared with the “business as usual” scenario, transitioning toward more plant-based diets could reduce global mortality by 6–10% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70%.
They found that compared to the “business as usual” direction, scenario two, in which global dietary guidelines were adopted, could prevent 5.1 million deaths per year. When people followed dietary guidelines and also went vegetarian, the researchers found that 7.3 million deaths could be avoided annually. And a guideline following vegan pathway could prevent 8.1 million deaths per year.
Approximately half of the avoided deaths were due to a reduction in red meat consumption. While the other half were due to a combination of eating more fruits and vegetables, combined with a reduction in total calories, leading to fewer people being overweight or obese.
And the financial savings the researchers calculated were simply stunning. The models developed by this team of researchers found that changes in diet could lead to enormous savings both in healthcare and in reduced damage from climate change.
This was hardly the first serious study to suggest that we might be better off eating less red meat. In fact, in 2015, after careful review of more than 800 medical studies, the World Health Organization concluded that processed meat causes cancer and that red meat probably does, as well. And a 2013 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that vegetarians outlive meat eaters considerably. Over the course of the 6-year study, among a group of 70,000 participants, researchers determined that vegetarians had a 12% lower risk of death compared with non-vegetarians.
But what made the just-released Oxford Martin School study unique was its comprehensive approach — looking at the health, environmental, and economic impact of various dietary approaches.
You don’t even have to be a vegetarian to take advantage of this studies’ findings. Every time you choose vegetables over hot dogs, or beans over burgers, you are helping to stabilize the world’s climate, and to improve the prospects for your long-term health.
Life is often filled with trade-offs, and choices that seem to come down to the lesser of two evils. But when it comes to moving in a plant-strong direction, the benefits are clear.