Save a life – eat a salad. That’s the message from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, which has published a study in PNAS showing how vegetarian diets could save millions of lives, not to mention trillions in climate-related costs and healthcare fees, and a substantial proportion of greenhouse gas emissions too.
The research looks at the typical omnivorous diet, and compares it with several alternatives: a diet that does not exceed nutritional guidelines, a typical vegetarian diet, and a typical vegan diet.
It forecasts that by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions deriving from food will account for half of what is considered acceptable to keep global warming to less than two degrees Celsius.
The diet of a carbon footprint
A diet that meets global nutritional guidelines, however, would shave 29% off of these emissions. Vegetarianism saves a massive 63%, while vegans score even better, slashing 70% from the total carbon footprint of their diet.
Dr Marco Springmann, who led the study, said:
“What we eat greatly influences our personal health and the global environment. Putting a dollar value on good health and the environment is a sensitive issue.
“However, 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.”
In terms of money, the estimated reduction in healthcare costs is between $700 million and $1 trillion each year, including the economic impact of people taking fewer days off work.
A further $570 billion could be saved thanks to the avoidance of climate costs due to the lower greenhouse gas emissions.
As well as saving the planet, there would be more immediate benefits in terms of saving individual lives, and more than five million people worldwide would survive each year just by eating in line with dietary guidelines.
Veganism to battle climate change
Switching to a vegetarian diet would save an estimated 7.3 million deaths each year by 2050, while again veganism has the greatest benefits, avoiding 8.1 million deaths a year.
Half of all these deaths would derive from excessive red meat intake, while the other half of the savings would come from a reduction in obesity, which in turn would derive from a combination of reduced calories and increased fruit and vegetable consumption.
While the reductions in fatalities would likely be centred on the developing nations, the report predicts that it would actually be developed countries that saw the biggest benefit per person.
Hidden health benefits
That is because those are the countries with the greatest current consumption of red meat, as well as the highest overall calorie intake, both of which could be tackled not necessarily by switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet, but even just by sticking to dietary guidelines.
Reduced calorie intake in particular is singled out as the biggest influencing factor in wealthy western nations, as well as countries in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Latin America.
But the challenge is vast – to achieve the full savings, red meat production would have to halve globally, while in some areas fruit and vegetable crops would need to double in their yields.