The good news is that if you want to become healthier and save the planet the two go conveniently hand in hand. Changing to a healthy diet, one high in plant-based foods with only small amounts of meat or fish is great for your health and the planet too.
This is what the medical journal the Lancet found. They brought together 37 of the world’s leading scientists to identify what makes up a healthy, sustainable diet. They came up with the planetary health diet, which is good for both people and the planet. In this diet whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes (e.g. peas and beans) make up the greatest proportion of food, with meat and dairy being eaten in significantly smaller proportions. Scientists estimate that this diet would save at least 11 million people a year from deaths caused by unhealthy food, while helping to prevent the collapse of the natural world.
So why is eating meat so bad for the environment? This is because around a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from food. The highest sources of greenhouse gases come from producing meat, especially the production of beef, milk and lamb. This is because cows and sheep emit methane from their digestive systems, which is a powerful global warming gas. Animals also require a lot of food. As the demand for meat and dairy products grows, more land is needed to grow animal feed. This is the most important factor driving rainforest deforestation.
It’s also really inefficient to raise animals for food. For example, a cow uses 100 calories of food to make 3 calories of meat. A calf and mother cow need to eat about thirty times the average calorie intake of one human each day. So, a lot of space is needed to grow food to feed the animals we eat. Globally over 4 in every 5 farmed fields are used to grow food for animals. Despite this, less than one in every five calories we eat comes from animal products.
In fact, animal products use 80% of land to give us 20% of our calories and plant products use 20% of our land to give us 80% of our calories. A large amount of this land is devoted to beef production, even though beef only accounts for about 2% of our overall calorie intake. Changing our diets would make a huge difference. If we were to stop eating animal products entirely then we would reduce the amount of land needed for food production by 75%. This would free up three quarters of the agricultural land on the planet. Reducing our meat and dairy consumption could make a real difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, feeding the growing population, helping to stop rainforest destruction, assist with rewilding and increasing the level of forest cover.
Would we miss the protein we get from animals if we reduce our intake or cut meat totally out of our diet? Apparently not, many plant-based foods have as much protein as meat. For example, black beans, lentils, soybeans and quinoa all pack a big protein punch. Research also indicates that vegetarian/vegan diets are typically lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre than traditional meat-eating diets. Vegetarian and vegan diets are also associated with lower risks of many medical problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
The science shows that the biggest difference we can make as individuals to reduce the carbon footprint of our food is to eat less meat, or ideally move towards a totally plant based-diet. It’s good for your health too.