Eat a Plant, Save the World

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When we eat, we understand the cost and benefits of food in our terms—how much money we shell out per meal, how it might make us feel afterwards, and how good it actually tastes.

Rarely, however, do we think about the impact of our diets on a global scale. It’s hard to imagine our dietary patterns bearing an effect on people we’ve never met living hundreds or thousands of miles away, but Dr. David Downie, a professor of politics and environmental science at Fairfield University, says that our eating is far more interconnected than we think.

“How humans grow food and consume food has a huge impact on the natural environment, and thus on human health worldwide,” Downie tells BTRtoday.

Nothing that we eat has a more profound influence on the environment than meat. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published a study that found a global shift to plant-based diets would provide a bevy of benefits to humanity, from saving lives to saving costs.

“We found that dietary changes toward more plant-based diets could save about 5 to 8 million lives globally in 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to two-thirds, and lead to a value of up to one-tenth of the global GDP, which would be $30 trillion,” Dr. Marco Springmann, author of the study, explains to BTRtoday.

“That would depend highly on the economic valuation method used, so a more conservative estimate of forgone costs would be around $1.5 trillion, but that is still a high number.”

When confronting the cost of eating meat, many are aware of and concerned with the environmental aspects of the problem–particularly emissions from livestock. Springmann explains, however, that his was the first study to consistently couple the environmental impact of dietary change with concrete health benefits while evaluating the economic cost of both.

“One surprising thing we found was that the health impact would result in greater economic benefits than environmental ones,” Springmann says. “The climate change community has talked about the environmental benefits to dietary change to write a degree, but in a sense we find that the health impact is at least as important, if not more important, than the environmental ones. It’s important on both accounts, but it’s interesting to see that comparison.”

One reason the projected economic benefit of dietary change was so great is due to the drop in healthcare costs, which the study found would be highest in the United States. Unfortunately, due to its focus on meat, the country might also account for many of the study’s detractors.

There will always be those that have a hard time accepting studies like these, especially when it bemoans the human cost of something near and dear like meat. In some parts of the U.S., red meat is its own food group, and a part of Americana that many people can’t imagine living without. Downie admits the difficulty in picturing a dietary shift away from meat in the U.S., though he remains optimistic.

“It’s certainly unlikely that our diets would shift so quickly in the absence of some type of disaster,” Downie tells BTRtoday. “It is difficult, but imagine in the near term that social convention and advertising around the meat industry would change so much that people wouldn’t eat meat. I can imagine Americans eating less meat if for no other reason than it’s good for them to.”

A bounty of research and information has been published about the benefits of cutting down or eliminating red meat from one’s diet altogether, but those findings can easily be cooked into a hodgepodge with those that embrace meat’s dietary importance. Springmann believes the key is to present the idea that the current amount of red meat consumption is both bad for human health and also simply not sustainable on a global level.

“Red meat is the number one factor in our diets that leads to the greatest environmental burden,” Springmann says. “From a planetary perspective, the best decision people can make would be to give up red meat.”

The amount of global systemic change that would have to occur to alter dietary habits, though, remains staggering. As incomes in developing countries increase, so will the demand for meat; throwing new and expanding markets into the mix.

“People like eating meat, and it’s associated with a particular lifestyle and level of income,” Downie says. “So as people that don’t have access to the type of food Americans take for granted get more access to it, they want to eat it, even if their traditional food might be healthier for them in the long run.”

That’s not to mention the political impact on global diets, though Springmann is hopeful that the study provides information to policymakers that might sway them to change the food environment and incentivize consumption of healthier, environmentally sustainable foods.

“For example, governments could ban advertisements of a certain food, or change relative prices so healthy and sustainable food would be the cheaper option,” he says. “They can look at the costs to all those things and compare it to what we estimate would be the benefit it terms of environmental damages and avoided healthcare costs.”

Studies alone are not enough, of course–in fact, there’s evidence to suggest that providing this kind of scientific information does little to influence behavioral changes. But Springmann views the problems similarly to those that surrounded cigarettes during the mid-20th century, and looks to that example as a possible parallel: a public health burden backed by a major industry that was eventually torn down after decades of research and public advocacy.

“There was a wealth of evidence in the ‘60s and probably earlier, and it took more than 50 years to get people in major countries off cigarettes,” he says. “And it’s still going on. So maybe that gives a good indication of how long it takes, even with great intentions, to change people towards more healthful behavior.”

For now, individuals making their own conscious choices remain essential, and Springmann is optimistic that his work has framed the dialogue surrounding plant-based diets in a grander and more global way than ever before.

“It would of course be great if individuals took the study and said okay, there’s evidence for me to change my diet,” he says. “We hope we’ve encouraged the discussion to seriously consider what we can do to get those dietary changes now that we find they have such large benefits.”