The meatless masochists known as vegans are a real force. Believe it or not, there are about eight million vegans in the United States. You may have even met—or become—one yourself.
Whether you're a Level 5 Vegan or you've just been trying to do your part to save the world by practicing Meatless Mondays, good news: Science says you are onto something. A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that eating less meat and eating more fruit and vegetables could help stave off global warming. As an added benefit, the healthier diet would also save billions in healthcare- and climate change-related costs and would avert roughly eight million premature deaths by 2050.
Researchers at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food examined four different scenarios in which the world either shifted or maintained its current diet and how they would play out by the year 2050. In the first scenario, everyone continues to eat the crap they are currently eating; in another, the world switches to a diet that follows global guidelines on fruit, vegetable, meat and sugar intake; in another, the world went vegetarian; and in the last, the world went full-on vegan.
The results were striking. Going with the global guidelines would decrease food-related greenhouse gases by 29 percent, while a vegetarian diet would decrease emissions by 63 percent and a vegan diet by 70 percent. The study estimated the economic benefit from these reductions could be as high as $570 billion.
"The food system is responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, while unhealthy diets and high body weight are among the greatest contributors to premature mortality," the study says.
With healthier plant-focused diets, healthcare savings and reductions in lost work could amount to as much as a trillion dollars per year. Overall, with the monetary value that society places on premature deaths, switching to more plant-based diets could save somewhere between one and 31 trillion dollars—up to 13 percent of the projected global GDP in 2050. Following global dietary guidelines could avert 5.3 million deaths, while a vegetarian diet could prevent 7.3 million and a vegan diet 8.1 million.
"Putting a dollar value on good health and the environment is a sensitive issue," says Marco Springmann, the study's lead author. "However, our results indicate that dietary changes could have large benefits to society, and the value of those benefits makes a strong case for increased public and private spending on programmes aimed to achieve healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets."
The lower mortality rates would largely come from a reduction in meat consumption, which a number of studies have recently found to be hazardous to your health. Thanks to fat- and meat-rich diets, East Asia, Latin America and wealthy Western countries would see the greatest health benefits from going vegan. South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa would benefit from increased fruit consumption.
But alas, the world doesn't look to be giving up meat anytime soon, even if by 2050 food production will account for half of the allotted carbon budget that must be maintained in order to keep the world from warming by 2 degrees Celsius. Combined with all the other sources of greenhouse gases, even following global dietary guidelines won't be enough to keep us under the limit. The study authors suggest that working toward a more plant-based diet is the best place to start.
Perhaps with knowledge of just how good it is for the planet to choose a salad over a steak could sway some decisions at the grocery store. But for a lot of people, you're going to have to pry their burgers from their cold, dead hands and chisel fat from their hardened, enlarged arteries.
"We do not expect everyone to become vegan," Springmann said.
That's good, because for a minute there it seemed like going vegan would make you go bald. For now, your meat is safe. But consider this a little hippie food for thought.