Win-Win Dietary Solutions to the Climate Crisis

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“Win-Win Dietary Solutions to the Climate Crisis” Scientists have a clear moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to tell it like it is. In November 2019, more than 11,000 scientists from 150 countries clearly and unequivocally declared that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. CO2 levels are rising, the glaciers are melting, and Antarctica is melting. The oceans are getting hotter, and more acidic. Sea levels are rising, and so are extreme weather events.

And yes, fossil fuel use is going up, like air travel, but so is per capita meat consumption. One of the solutions they offer to help the climate crisis is eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products. And what makes designing a sustainable diet so easy is that the same advice— like eating less meat—is good for both personal health, like reducing the risk of our number #1 killer, as well as for planetary health. The least healthy foods also cause the worst environmental impact. The foods with the most nutrition just so happen to be the foods that cause the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, so you get this win-win effect.



So, let’s put it all together. If we are to redesign the global food system for human and planetary health— which is to say human health and future human health—what would it look like? Enter the EAT-Lancet Commission, the result of more than two years of collaboration between 37 experts from 16 countries, suggesting a cut in total meat consumption down to an ounce a day— that’s like the weight of a single chicken nugget— all the while dramatically increasing our intakes of legumes—which are beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils— nuts, fruits, and vegetables, because we’re not just in a climate crisis, but a health crisis.


Unhealthy diets cause more death and disease than smoking, more than unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. But we can address both crises at the same time by increasing our consumption of whole plant foods and substantially reducing our consumption of animal-source foods.

Eating such a diet could save the lives of more than 10 million people a year and may just help save the world. The Paris Agreement had set out a boundary condition, an aspirational goal for a carbon budget to help prevent catastrophic impacts, and staying within the boundary for climate change can be achieved by consuming plant-based diets.



And the personal benefits may be comparable with or even exceed the value of the environmental benefits. The healthcare benefits alone for a healthy global diet— a predominantly plant-based diet, a vegetarian or a vegan diet— could exceed the price of the carbon saved. We’re talking up to 30 trillion dollars a year saved from the health benefits alone.

Now if the health of yourself, the planet, and your children doesn’t quite motivate you, consider that you may also be facing threats to the global beer supply. And healthier diets don’t just reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss, reducing meat consumption is also the key to biodiversity conservation, ideally, perhaps, reducing demand for animal-based foods by increasing the proportion of plant-based foods up to 90% of the diet. Livestock production is also a leading cause of soil loss, and water and nutrient pollution. Yet it appears to be a blind spot in water policy.



Even though animal products form the single most important factor in humanity’s water footprint, water managers never seem to talk about meat and dairy. But it’s not just animal products. I mean, yes, at least 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon is to raise cattle and grow feed crops like soybeans to export to other farm animals, but also to make vegetable oil, most of which is from palm and soy. Both crops have been expanding, resulting in massive deforestation. It just seems particularly egregious if that deforestation takes place for the sake of junk food.



Not everyone agrees we should be moving to healthier diets, though. The World Health Organization pulled out of the EAT-Lancet Commission because they promoted a global move to more plant-based foods. See, if we focused on promoting predominantly plant-based foods and excluding foods deemed unhealthy, including meat and other animal-based foods, such a diet could, yeah, save 10 million lives a year, 30 trillion dollars, and help save the entire planet, but could lead to the loss of jobs linked to animal husbandry and the production of junk.


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