A landmark study from the University of Oxford has declared that by consuming plant-based foods, instead of animal-based food products, the world could prevent 8.1 million deaths per year and substantially mitigate the expected food-related greenhouse gas emissions growth by 2050, while saving between $708–1,426 billion USD in diet related “cost-of-illness” health burdens.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, created a region-specific global health model to link the health and environmental consequences of changing diets, while making an estimate the economic value of different dietary choices through their affects on health and the environment, and also built a comparative risk assessment to estimate age and region-specific mortality associated with changes in dietary and weight-related risk factors.
The researchers modelled the affects of four different diets by mid-century:
- A “business as usual” scenario where nothing changes;
- One that follows global guidelines, including minimum amounts of fruits and vegetables, limits on red meat, sugar, and total calories;
- A vegetarian diet; and,
- A vegan diet.
The Results: A Vegan World Kicks Ass
Adopting a diet inline with global guidelines seems like it could do a decent amount of improvement. Adopting global guidelines diet could avert 5.1 million deaths per year by 2050, a cut to food-related global emissions by 29%, save $735 billion USD per year on healthcare, unpaid care, and lost working days, while creating a monetised environmental benefit from reduced climate change emissions of $234 billion USD.
However, a plant-based or vegan diet would see the greatest of all benefits and improvements across all scenarios. A vegan diet would secure 8.1 million fewer deaths per year by 2050, cut 70% of food-related global greenhouse gas emissions, save up to $1,426 billion USD in diet related health burdens, and also create an economic environmental benefit of $570 billion USD with reduced climate change emissions.
The world adopting a vegan diet absolutely kicks the pants off the other three scenarios and would create the most sustainable future possibility that exists to us. “Business as usual”, however, involving animal agriculture will continue us on a path to increasing global greenhouse gas emissions, warmer and acidifying oceans, record growing deforestation devastation, climbing past the global surface anthropogenic temperature rise of 2C, and mass ecosystem collapse.
But the study itself acknowledges that the research in some ways represents an idealised experiment because changing our food system—as dramatically as envisioned in the study—would be a momentous task. It certainly doesn’t make it impossible, though, and it certainly couldn’t happen soon enough.
A new global energy tracker model developed by researchers at the University of Queensland and Griffith University has shown that alarmingly, the world is now on track to reach dangerous levels of global warming much sooner than expected. It predicts the average world temperatures could climb 2C above pre-industrial levels by 2030. The UN conference on climate change in Paris last year agreed to a 1.5C rise as the preferred limit to protect vulnerable island states, and a 2C rise as the absolute limit.
To our credit, the human species has demonstrated many times before that we are capable of turning away from a practice, even a practice that made us a lot of money and created many jobs, because it was detrimental, unethical, or problematic in some large way.
Consider the shift away from child labour, leaded petrol, nuclear power, or whaling. Our dependence on fossil fuels has meant a shift away where the alternative is actually more expensive, but we’re doing it regardless because there is a clear acceptance that it is unsustainable and very damaging to the world.
Our next step shouldn’t be backwards, or to avoid the truth—it should be a bold stride forward with an embrace of the difficulty that looms because doing nothing, going about business as usual, will be our biggest undoing as a species who claims to be evolved and intelligent.
It’s clear what the least damaging path is forward, so when are we going to evolve to it?