Can Plant-Based Diets Save the Planet?

By Maribel Sierra

Six years ago, I embarked on a 30-day vegan challenge by eating a diet devoid of any animal products. The health and animal welfare arguments in favor of veganism were compelling but I was especially moved by the environmental reasons. One of those reasons is that vegetarian diets require less water and land needed to grow food than meat-based diets (1). Knowing the benefits of vegan diets played a big role in keeping me from going back to an omnivore’s diet, but sticking to a vegan diet was not easy. Keeping a vegan diet meant fewer choices when eating out and spending more time and money on food. Ultimately, I decided that a vegetarian diet including dairy was the most sustainable for me. Over the years, a slew of research has emerged touting the benefits of plant-based diets, which can include meat but rely mostly on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. The research on plant-based diets seems promising but I cannot help but wonder, can a plant-based diet actually save the planet?

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A seasonal display of fruit at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market in San Francisco, California. Photo credit: Maribel Sierra

The EAT-Lancet Commission, a team of 37 nutrition and food experts from 16 countries would likely say yes. In January, the EAT-Lancet commission published a report entitled “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems” to make a case for a planetary health diet which consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and plant-based proteins like beans and lentils. The commission reports that a planetary health diet is a win-win diet for people and the environment while diets high in red meat, dairy, and refined grains and sugars are a lose-lose diet.

For instance, authors cite meta-analyses which show an association between red meat consumption and increased risk of death from any death and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, diets high in dairy, sugar, and other processed meat products have been linked to weight gain and obesity. Today, over 2 billion adults are overweight and obese, and diet-related noncommunicable diseases including diabetes, cancer, and heart diseases are among the leading causes of global deaths (2,3). At the same time, producing enough meat, dairy, and processed products to keep up with current demands requires intensive use of water, land, and other resources. The EAT-Lancet Commission predicts that meeting the demand for unhealthy food (e.g., red and processed meat, refined grains and sugar) could increase greenhouse-gas emissions, cropland use, and freshwater use in the absence of dedicated mitigation measures (3). Changing our diets to include more healthy foods could be beneficial for our health by preventing diet-related diseases and reducing harmful impacts on the environment.

The EAT-Lancet Commission makes a bold call to reduce meat and dairy consumption in favor of plant-based food. Transitioning to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, including doubling consumption of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. The Commission also calls for reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, by half. However, the recommendations may be difficult to follow since the average person consumed around 97 pounds (43 kgs) of meat in 2014, up from 53 pounds (~20 kilograms) in 1961. In the US, where diet-related diseases are prevalent, only 1 in 10 adults get the recommended amount of fresh fruits (1.5-2 cups) and vegetables (2-3 cups). Cost, availability, accessibility, and taste preferences are all examples of barriers known to prevent people from eating enough fruits and vegetables. It is vital to find ways to address these barriers in order to promote healthier eating habits.

The EAT-Lancet report goes far to describe why it is important to change the way we eat, but it is also a good idea to seek more ways how to support healthy eating. Since the report was released, the EAT-Lancet Commission has published summaries and other materials geared toward the general public with steps people can take to increase their intake of plant-based food. The action steps listed by the Commission are a good start. However, to optimize human health and environmental sustainability, cities and local governments around the world should consider new strategies and technologies to meet global food demands and support healthy populations and ecosystems. This could mean improved farming practices (e.g., regenerative land management) or efforts to increase access to healthy foods, including start-ups like Imperfect Produce. Collectively, the dietary choices we make as individuals, as well as broader initiatives like Meatless Monday, helps to bring us one bite closer to achieving healthier lives and a healthier planet.

Peer-reviewed by Evan Paules

References:

  1.   Pimentel D, Pimentel M. Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(3):660S-663S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/78.3.660S
  2.   EAT-Lancet Commission. EAT-Lancet Commission Brief for Everyone. EAT. https://eatforum.org/lancet-commission/everyone/. Published January 16, 2019. Accessed March 17, 2019.
  3.   Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393(10170):447-492. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4
  4.   Ritchie H, Roser M. Meat and Seafood Production & Consumption. Our World in Data. August 2017. https://ourworldindata.org/meat-and-seafood-production-consumption. Accessed March 17, 2019.
  5.  Is the Percentage of Vegetarians and Vegans in the U.S. Increasing? August 2018. https://animalcharityevaluators.org/blog/is-the-percentage-of-vegetarians-and-vegans-in-the-u-s-increasing/. Accessed March 17, 2019.

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