Would going vegetarian really help save the planet?

For even the most ardent meat lovers, it might be time to admit that going vegetarian really can make a massive impact on our planet’s health, as well as on our own.

Vegetarians advocate a meat-free lifestyle for a variety of reasons.

But whatever your thoughts on eating animals, the benefits to cutting down on meat for the environment, our own health and economy are undeniable.

One major study from the University of Oxford in 2016 found that a global switch from meat to a plant-based diet would dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, save millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

By assessing what would happen under four different scenarios of varying levels of human consumption of meat for the year 2015, researchers found the less meat people ate, the greater the benefits.

Cutting greenhouse gases

Could you swap sausage and steak for fruit, veg and pulses? Copyright: Invertzoo

The food system produces more than 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions (the gases that trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere); 80% of these are linked to livestock production.

Researchers behind the Oxford study predicted that if vegetarian or vegan diets became widespread, emissions associated with livestock would be cut by 70% and 63% respectively.

And in general, switching to plant-based diets could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions from anywhere between 29 to 70 percent, according to the study.

And if that’s not enough to convince you, previous research has suggested one hectare of land in which vegetables, fruit and cereals are grown can feed up to 30 people. But the same area of land if used to produce meat could only feed five to 10 people.

Then there’s the mass deforestation to clear land to grow crops for animal feed, which is thought to account for about six million hectares of forest felled per year.

Impact on health

Reducing how much meat you eat could help you live longer. Copyright: Vivekpat30

Switching to less animal sourced food would definitely boost our health.

If vegetarianism and veganism were the norm, 7.3 million and 8.1 million deaths would be avoided each year, respectively.

About half of these avoided deaths would be due to reduction of red meat consumption, with the other half the result of a combination of increased fruit and vegetable intake and reduction in calories, resulting in fewer people being overweight and the associated diseases and health problems.

Economic cost

Changing diet could save $1 trillion dollars annually in health care and lost productivity costs. And that figure jumped to $30 trillion when taking into account the economic value of the extra deaths associated with poor diet.

“What we eat greatly influences our personal health and the global environment,” said researcher Dr Marco Springmann.

But he also admitted that adopting global dietary guidelines alone might not be enough to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions to the same extent that total greenhouse gas emissions need to fall to keep global temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius.

While Dr Springmann and colleagues said they did not expect everyone to become vegan, “climate change impacts of the food system will be hard to tackle and likely require more than just technological changes.

“Adopting healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets can be a large step in the right direction.”

So if you’re still not ready to cut out the sausages, steaks and bacon butties altogether, just reducing how much meat you eat could make a difference.

Meat-free Mondays, for example, a campaign launched by Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney in 2009 has gathered momentum in recent years.

Even small changes could give the planet, and yourself, a break.