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Combat Climate Change While Boosting Your Health

It's simple: Eat less meat.
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(Photo: jaded one/Flickr)

(Photo: jaded one/Flickr)

Among our many worries, two stand out for their potentially dire long-term consequences: global climate change, and our personal health. Well, newly published research points to a simple step we can take that will simultaneously help the environment and increase our odds of living a long life: Eat less meat.

"The food system is responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, while unhealthy diets and high body weight are among the greatest contributors to premature mortality," writes a research team led by Marco Springmann of the University of Oxford. It argues that "the lower the fraction of animal-sourced foods in our diets," the greater the benefits we will see in terms of both climate change and health.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Springmann and his colleagues present a comparative analysis of the personal and planetary benefits of shifting to a more plant-based diet. While they find considerable variation from one region of the world to another, the overall figures they arrived at are quite striking.

"About half of the global avoided deaths occurred because of the consumption of less red meat."

They estimate that, compared to sticking with our current dietary patterns, "changes in the consumption of red meat, fruits, and vegetables, and in total energy intake, could result in reductions in total mortality of 6 to 10 percent" by the year 2050.

That figure "is likely an underestimate," they add, since they could not compute the health benefits of eating more whole grains and less salt and sugar—likely side effects of switching to a more health-conscious diet.

"We found that about half of the global avoided deaths occurred because of the consumption of less red meat," the researchers write. "The other half was due to a combination of increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and reductions in total energy intake," resulting in a smaller percentage of the population being obese.

"The greatest improvement in per capita risk reductions (would take place) in Western high- and middle-income countries," they add.

Turning to climate, Springmann and his colleagues noted that 80 percent of food-industry-driven greenhouse gas emissions "are associated with livestock production." Reducing our consumption of meat could make a huge contribution to the fight against climate change, decreasing greenhouse gases by anywhere between 29 to 70 percent over expected levels by 2050.

Once again, the researchers call that "a conservative estimate," since it does "not account for the beneficial impacts of dietary change on land use," including a curtailing of deforestation.

To be sure, they're talking about big changes in our dietary habits: about a 25 percent increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, a 56 percent reduction in red meat consumption (that means eating half as many burgers), and an overall drop in caloric intake of around 15 percent. That qualifies as a major change in lifestyle.

So don't ever complain that you'd like to do something about climate change, but you don't know where to begin. This study points to an excellent starting point: your dinner plate.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.