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Society  |  Dossier Food – Vice or Virtue ?

What if the world became vegetarian?

©Shutterstock/casanisa

Many people are vegetarian for ethical reasons or owing to personal taste. Yet, in light of new studies, more and more people are wondering whether they should stop eating meat. Cutting meat products out of our diet would be beneficial for both our health and the environment. “We have found that if the world adopted a vegetarian diet by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by around 60% and mortality by 9% compared to the situation if current trends were to continue,” notes Marco Springmann, a researcher for the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food.

This researcher points out that the majority of people on our planet do not follow the recommendation to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and to limit red and processed meat to less than 500 grammes1 a week. He says, “Eating more fruit and vegetables and cutting down on red and processed meat reduces the risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and certain types of cancer.”


 

Major changes

Of course, such shifts in our diets would require major changes in the global food system. The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food considers that, in order to satisfy dietary recommendations, the production and consumption of fruit and vegetables would have to more than double in certain regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. As for the world consumption of red meat, it would need to be cut by half, or even by two-thirds in western countries, East Asia, and Latin America.

Marco Springmann stresses the fact that, “It’s very important to look into potential options so that the food system can rise to the environmental and health challenges we will have to face if current trends continue. We hope that ongoing and future research will contribute to this debate.” The Oxford Martin Programme conducts analyses to provide a projection of the global food system in 2050. Several gradual adaptations are under consideration to produce ingredients suitable for more sustainable diets. “In addition to changes in consumer preferences already underway, it will be important for decision-makers to create the right incentives in order to discourage eating habits that have an adverse effect on health and the environment and encourage those which are good for them.”


 

Chicken is less harmful

As regards greenhouse gas emissions, the researcher underlines that products of animal farming cause most harm to the environment. Producing beef actually generates around 20 times more emissions per gramme of protein than pulses. Producing poultry creates fewer emissions than beef, but around three times more than pulses2.

According to Marco Springmann, “We have estimated that, if we were to focus solely on reducing the consumption of red meat (beef, lamb and pork) and the consumption of poultry was to stay in line with predicted trends, it would be possible to reduce food-related emissions by around 30% by the year 2050.”

Promoting biodiversity

In a more vegetarian world, the diversity of life on Earth would probably also improve. In fact, the use of land for livestock farming, either for direct grazing or for producing animal feed, is one of the main causes of loss of habitat and a threat to biodiversity. There is then the additional factor of demand: If consumption of plant-based products increased, people might be more inclined to consume a wider variety of plants. Marco Springmann points out that, “Currently, around 95% of the calories we eat come from just 30 varieties of plants, even though around 7000 species have been cultivated for human consumption and the total estimated number of plants stands at 400 000.”

What would the future hold for workers in the meat industry? The researcher notes that, “Both livestock and arable farmers are an integral part of the solution in a transition towards healthier and more sustainable diets. With the EU Common Agricultural Policy, for many years now we have been able to see that farmers are highly sensitive to changes in regulations. If we were to take into account appropriate support mechanisms and incentives, we believe that a gradual change towards more plant-based diets could take place without putting farmers at risk.”


 

Alternative products

Slow Food Switzerland is an association that promotes the right to good quality food for everyone and encourages the protection of biodiversity heritage, culture and knowledge. Its director, Alexandre Fricker, recommends a balanced diet of meat products and vegetables.

From a nutritional point of view, he points out that a reduction in meat consumption could be somewhat offset by the protein in soya3, a foodstuff that can be consumed in many different forms, such as flavoured drinks or as a steak. “Protein is also found in various pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, dried beans, dried peas and raw white beans. Cereals are also rich in protein.” Food such as rice, rye, sweetcorn, oats, or wholemeal bread could also be promoted, as well as dried fruit and nuts such as cashew nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, walnuts and pecans.

Positive effects of production of animal-based food

The European Livestock and Meat Trades Union (UECBV) sees things from a different perspective. There is a trend towards numerous studies demonstrating the harmfulness of products of animal origin, whether in terms of diet, the environment or food safety. Yet for Jean-Luc Mériaux, Secretary General of the UECBV, it is a question of communication: “Studies showing the positive effects of the production of animal-based food are just as compelling as those concluding their adverse effects. For example, we could mention the recent publication from Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) which concludes that, if everyone followed the dietary recommendations, this would contribute to increasing greenhouse gas emissions by 6%, water consumption by 10% and energy consumption by 38%.”4 This analysis may be open to discussion, but has the merit of illustrating the complexity of the phenomena studied and of avoiding using simplistic approaches.

Therefore, according to Jean-Luc Mériaux, notwithstanding any conflict of interest or dogmatic approach, there are several lessons to be drawn: Food processes are complicated, assessment methods are not standardised, uncertainties outnumber the certainties and, finally, environmental benefits do not necessarily converge with health benefits. The approach to adopt must therefore encompass all parameters, including nutrition, the environment, wellbeing, the economy and social aspects. He adds that, “Studies rarely take the beneficial effects of animal products into consideration, such as carbon sequestration, the development of land which will fall prey to desertification if livestock farming disappeared, and nutritional value. It is worth noting, for example, that 100 grammes of beef provide 1 gramme of iron, whereas it would require 1.2 kg of lentils to obtain the same amount of iron.”

Katie Rose McCullough, Director of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at the North American Meat Institute, points the finger at the fact that some studies supposed to prove that animal products are dangerous use projections and simplifications. She places particular emphasis on the nutritional deficiencies, such as the lack of vitamin B12, zinc, calcium and iron, which are a consequence of reducing or eliminating products of animal origin in our diets. She says, “These are very real risks which have serious repercussions on public health.” We share the desire to feed the population while minimising environmental impact and we believe that a balanced diet which includes meat is good for people and for the planet.”

William Türler
Lausanne, CH

Journalist and editorial manager

William Türler works for the Swiss agency LargeNetwork, on topics related to the economy, tourism, gastronomy and the hospitality sector. He is also the editorial manager of Infotellerie, the trade journal of the Swiss Romande Hotel Association (ARH).

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