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Eliminating meat from our diets would bring a bounty of benefits lớn both our own health & the planet’s – but it could also harm millions of people.

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People become vegetarians for a variety of reasons. Some do it to alleviate animal suffering, others because they want lớn pursue a healthier lifestyle. Still others are fans of sustainability or wish to lớn reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

No matter how much their carnivorous friends might deny it, vegetarians have a point: cutting out meat delivers multiple benefits. And the more who make the switch, the more those perks would manifest on a global scale.

But if everyone became a committed vegetarian, there would be serious drawbacks for millions, if not billions, of people.

“It’s a tale of two worlds, really,” says Andrew Jarvis of Colombia’s International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. “In developed countries, vegetarianism would bring all sorts of environmental & health benefits. But in developing countries there would be negative effects in terms of poverty.”


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If vegetarianism was adopted by 2050, it would stave off about 7 million deaths per year, while veganism would knock that estimate up khổng lồ 8 million (Credit: iStock)


Jarvis & other experts at the centre hypothesised what might happen if meat dropped off the planet’s menu overnight.

First, they examined climate change. Food production accounts for one-quarter khổng lồ one-third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, & the brunt of responsibility for those numbers falls to the livestock industry. Despite this, how our dietary choices affect climate change is often underestimated. In the US, for example, an average family of four emits more greenhouse gases because of the meat they eat than from driving two cars – but it is cars, not steaks, that regularly come up in discussions about global warming.


“Most people don’t think of the consequences of food on climate change,” says Tim Benton, a food security expert at the University of Leeds. “But just eating a little less meat right now might make things a whole lot better for our children and grandchildren.”

Marco Springmann, a research fellow at the Oxford Martin School’s Future of Food programme, tried to lớn quantify just how much better: he và his colleagues built computer models that predicted what would happen if everyone became vegetarian by 2050. The results indicate that – largely thanks to the elimination of red meat – food-related emissions would drop by about 60%. If the world went vegan instead, emissions declines would be around 70%.

“When looking at what would be in line with avoiding dangerous levels of climate change, we found that you could only stabilise the ratio of food-related emissions lớn all emissions if everyone adopted a plant-based diet,” Springmann says. “That scenario is not very realistic – but it highlights the importance that food-related emissions will play in the future.”


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Food, especially livestock, also takes up a lot of room – a source of both greenhouse gas emissions due to land conversion and of biodiversity loss. Of the world’s approximately five billion hectares (12 billion acres) of agricultural land, 68% is used for livestock.


Should we all go vegetarian, ideally we would dedicate at least 80% of that pastureland lớn the restoration of grasslands và forests, which would capture carbon and further alleviate climate change. Converting former pastures lớn native habitats would likely also be a boon khổng lồ biodiversity, including for large herbivores such as buffalo that were pushed out for cattle, as well as for predators like wolves that are often killed in retaliation for attacking livestock.

The remaining 10 to lớn 20% of former pastureland could be used for growing more crops to lớn fill gaps in the food supply. Though a relatively small increase in agricultural land, this would more than cosplay for the loss of meat because one-third of the land currently used for crops is dedicated lớn producing food for livestock – not for humans.

Both environmental restoration & conversion khổng lồ plant-based agriculture would require planning và investment, however, given than pasturelands tend to lớn be highly degraded. “You couldn’t just take cows off the land & expect it to lớn become a primary forest again on its own,” Jarvis says.

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Carnivorous careers

People formerly engaged in the livestock industry would also need assistance transitioning to a new career, whether in agriculture, helping with reforestation or producing bioenergy from crop byproducts currently used as livestock feed.

Some farmers could also be paid khổng lồ keep livestock for environmental purposes. “I’m sitting here in Scotland where the Highlands environment is very manmade and based largely on grazing by sheep,” says Peter Alexander, a researcher in socio-ecological systems modelling at the University of Edinburgh. “If we took all the sheep away, the environment would look different & there would be a potential negative impact on biodiversity.”

Should we fail lớn provide clear career alternatives and subsidies for former livestock-related employees, meanwhile, we would probably face significant unemployment and social upheaval – especially in rural communities with close ties khổng lồ the industry.


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“There are over 3.5 billion domestic ruminants on earth, và tens of billions of chickens produced & killed each year for food,” says Ben Phalan, who researches the balance between food demand & biodiversity at the University of Cambridge. “We’d be talking about a huge amount of economic disruption.”

But even the best-laid plans probably wouldn’t be able to lớn offer alternative livelihoods for everyone. Around one-third of the world’s land is composed of arid và semi-arid rangeland that can only tư vấn animal agriculture. In the past, when people have attempted khổng lồ convert parts of the Sahel – a massive east-to-west strip of Africa located south of the Sahara và north of the equator – from livestock pasture lớn croplands, desertification và loss of productivity have ensued. “Without livestock, life in certain environments would likely become impossible for some people,” Phalan says. That especially includes nomadic groups such as the Mongols và Berbers who, stripped of their livestock, would have to settle permanently in cities or towns – likely losing their cultural identity in the process.

Plus, even those whose entire livelihoods do not depend on livestock would stand lớn suffer. Meat is an important part of history, tradition and cultural identity. Numerous groups around the world give livestock gifts at weddings, celebratory dinners such as Christmas centre around turkey or roast beef, and meat-based dishes are emblematic of certain regions và people. “The cultural impact of completely giving up meat would be very big, which is why efforts lớn reduce meat consumption have often faltered,” Phalan says.


The effect on health is mixed, too. Springmann’s computer mã sản phẩm study showed that, should everyone go vegetarian by 2050, we would see a global mortality reduction of 6-10%, thanks khổng lồ a lessening of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke & some cancers. Eliminating red meat accounts for half of that decline, while the remaining benefits are thanks to lớn scaling back the number of calories people consume và increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables they eat. A worldwide vegan diet would further amplify these benefits: global vegetarianism would stave off about 7 million deaths per year, while total veganism would knock that estimate up to 8 million. Fewer people suffering from food-related chronic illnesses would also mean a reduction in medical bills, saving about 2-3% of global gross domestic product. 


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Even the best-laid plans probably wouldn’t be able to lớn offer alternative livelihoods for everyone (Credit: iStock)


But realising these projected benefits would require replacing meat with nutritionally appropriate substitutes. Animal products contain more nutrients per calorie than vegetarian staples like grains & rice, so choosing the right replacement would be important, especially for the world’s estimated two billion-plus undernourished people. “Going vegetarian globally could create a health crisis in the developing world, because where would the micronutrients come from?” Benton says.

All in moderation

But fortunately, the entire world doesn’t need lớn convert to vegetarianism or veganism to reap many of the benefits while limiting the repercussions.

Instead, moderation in meat-eating’s frequency and portion kích cỡ is key. One study found that simply conforming to the World Health Organization’s dietary recommendations would bring the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions down by 17% – a figure that would drop by an additional 40% should citizens further avoid animal products and processed snacks. “These are dietary changes that consumers would barely notice, like having a just-slightly-smaller piece of meat,” Jarvis says. “It’s not this either-or, vegetarian-or-carnivore scenario.”

Certain changes khổng lồ the food system also would encourage us all to make healthier & more environmentally-friendly dietary decisions, says Springmann – lượt thích putting a higher price tag on meat & making fresh fruits and vegetables cheaper and more widely available. Addressing inefficiency would also help: thanks to lớn food loss, waste and overeating, fewer than 1/2 of the calories currently produced are actually used effectively.

“There is a way khổng lồ have low productivity systems that are high in animal và environmental welfare – as well as profitable – because they’re producing meat as a treat rather than a daily staple,” Benton says. “In this situation, farmers get the exact same income. They’re just growing animals in a completely different way.”

In fact, clear solutions already exist for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock industry. What is lacking is the will to lớn implement those changes.

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