As the IPCC special report on global warming made desperately clear earlier this week, the world has some major environmental challenges on its hands. Faced with all this doom and gloom, people often ask: what difference can an individual actually make?
According to some fresh scientific research, embracing a plant-based diet could be key to saving the planet. In fact, it could soon become a necessity.
The new study, published in the journal Nature, looks at how the world could sustainably feed the 10 billion people expected to live on Earth by 2050. The good news is that this mammoth feat is possible, however, it will require a huge shift in food production and consumption.
Our current food system has a number of striking impacts on the environment, such as vast carbon emissions from livestock, deforestation, the depletion of freshwater, and pollution through the excessive use of fertilizers. As the world’s population continues to boom, the impacts could increase by 50 to 90 percent unless we change the way we eat and the way we produce food.
One of their key findings was that the world will not be able to sufficiently deal with climate change unless we move to predominately plant-based “flexitarian” diet. This simply means eating notably less meat, especially red meat, and greater amounts of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. Even cutting down meat consumption to one serving a week could be enough. If most of the world did this, it could slash greenhouse gas emissions by more than half and reduce other negative environmental impacts by up to 25 percent.
"When it comes to diets, comprehensive policy and business approaches are essential to make dietary changes towards healthy and more plant-based diets possible and attractive for a large number of people,” Fabrice de Clerck, director of science at EAT, the Swedish think-tank that funded the study, said in a statement.
“Important aspects include school and workplace programmes, economic incentives and labeling, and aligning national dietary guidelines with the current scientific evidence on healthy eating and the environmental impacts of our diet," added lead author Dr Marco Springmann of the University of Oxford.
On top of that, agriculture also needs to implement new management practices and technology that could limit pressures on agricultural land. Cutting down on food loss and waste could also reduce environmental impacts by a further 16 percent.
“No single solution is enough to avoid crossing planetary boundaries,” said Dr Springmann. “But when the solutions are implemented together, our research indicates that it may be possible to feed the growing population sustainably.”
Springmann told Reuters: “For the average consumer ... the takeaway message is, change your diet and write to your politicians to implement better regulations."