When we talk about food, we tend to talk almost exclusively about how what we eat affects our bodies. What we tend to neglect, is how our food choices affect the world as a whole. One of the main threats to human life on Earth is climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are well known as the cause of global warming. What you might not know, is that up to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions result from livestock production . Armed with this knowledge, Marco Springmann, H. Charles J. Godfray, Mike Rayner, and Peter Scarborough, from the University of Oxford used, “a region-specific global health model” to predict the effect of large-scale dietary changes on public health and the environment in 2050. They then used those effects to estimate the “economic value of different dietary choices” .
The study discussed four possible dietary scenarios in the year 2050. The first scenario was based on a future according to the dietary projections made by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. This first scenario was the reference scenario against which the others were measured; a standard scenario where current dietary patterns remained relatively constant. In the second scenario, the future population abides by global dietary health restrictions and consumes just enough calories to maintain a healthy body weight. Finally, the third and fourth scenarios were vegetarianism and veganism respectively.
The health effects of these dietary scenarios were estimated by looking at the amount of red meat and fruits and vegetables eaten, as well as the resulting projected number of overweight or obese members of the 2050 population. Both of these are connected to diseases like coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. A future population that abided by the global health restrictions in the second scenario would prevent 5.1 million deaths per year in comparison to the reference scenario. A population of vegetarians would prevent 7.3 million deaths, and a population of vegans would prevent 8.1 million deaths. The decrease in mortality rate in vegetarianism and veganism in comparison to simply abiding by global health restriction or continuing current dietary patterns, results from a decrease in diseases caused by increased consumption of red meats. In other words, your vegan friends aren’t making up the health benefits of their diet.
What is really interesting to note is the environmental impact of dietary change. As previously mentioned, greenhouse gas emissions are great contributors to global warming. Accordingly, this study measured environmental impact by predicting the amount of greenhouse gases that would be released in the production of the food consumed in the aforementioned dietary scenarios. For example, cattle farming is responsible for producing large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. In the reference scenario, greenhouse gas emissions related to food will have increased by 51% by 2050 (in comparison to levels in 2005/2007). Whereas a future population that abides by global health restrictions will produce greenhouse gas emissions that are only 7% greater than levels in 2005/2007. A population in 2050 that is vegetarian or vegan will actually have greenhouse gas emissions that are 45%-55% lower than emissions in 2005/2007. These decreases in greenhouse gas emissions correlated to lower productions of red meat, poultry, eggs and dairy.
Finally, to estimate the economic benefits of dietary change, these researchers used three approaches. The first approach accounted for the cost of dietary-related illness, the second approach considered the “statistical value of life”, while the third approach accounted for the economic benefit of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately it was found that on all three counts, each of these dietary scenarios saved money, where vegetarianism and veganism saved the most money (with veganism having a maximum estimated cost saving of $30 trillion per year).
It is clear that eating less red meat and more fruits and vegetables is beneficial for our health, our environment and our economy. However, the question remains, will knowing all of this be enough to actually change people’s behavior. Think of all the devout carnivores you know. Think of every friend you have who swears that they’d take bacon over life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness any day. Would the chance to slow down climate change, improve the economy and keep themselves healthy change any of their decisions? Would it change any of yours?
 Springmann, M., Godfray, H. C., Rayner, M., & Scarborough, P. (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 113(15), 4146-4151. doi:10.1073/pnas.1523119113