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What would happen if the world suddenly


went vegetarian?

Eliminating meat from our diets would bring a bounty of benets to both our
own health and the planets but it could also harm millions of people.

ByRachelNuwer
27September2016

Peoplebecomevegetariansforavarietyofreasons.Somedoittoalleviateanimalsuffering,
othersbecausetheywanttopursueahealthierlifestyle.Stillothersarefansofsustainabilityor
wishtoreducegreenhousegasemissions.
Nomatterhowmuchtheircarnivorousfriendsmightdenyit,vegetarianshaveapoint:cuttingout
meatdeliversmultiplebenefits.Andthemorewhomaketheswitch,themorethoseperkswould
manifestonaglobalscale.
Butifeveryonebecameacommittedvegetarian,therewouldbeseriousdrawbacksformillions,if
notbillions,ofpeople.
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Itsataleoftwoworlds,really,saysAndrewJarvisofColombiasInternationalCentrefor
TropicalAgriculture.Indevelopedcountries,vegetarianismwouldbringallsortsofenvironmental
andhealthbenefits.Butindevelopingcountriestherewouldbenegativeeffectsintermsof
poverty.

Vegetarianismstavesoffabout7milliondeathsperyear,whileveganismknocksthatestimateupto8million
(Credit:iStock)

Jarvisandotherexpertsatthecentrehypothesisedwhatmighthappenifmeatdroppedoffthe
planetsmenuovernight.
First,theyexaminedclimatechange.Foodproductionaccountsforonequartertoonethirdofall
anthropogenicgreenhousegasemissionsworldwide,andthebruntofresponsibilityforthose
numbersfallstothelivestockindustry.Despitethis,howourdietarychoicesaffectclimatechange
isoftenunderestimated.IntheUS,forexample,anaveragefamilyoffouremitsmore
greenhousegasesbecauseofthemeattheyeatthanfromdrivingtwocarsbutitiscars,not
steaks,thatregularlycomeupindiscussionsaboutglobalwarming.

"
Mostpeopledontthinkoftheconsequencesoffoodonclimate
changeTimBenton
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Mostpeopledontthinkoftheconsequencesoffoodonclimatechange,saysTimBenton,a
foodsecurityexpertattheUniversityofLeeds.Butjusteatingalittlelessmeatrightnowmight
makethingsawholelotbetterforourchildrenandgrandchildren.
MarcoSpringmann,aresearchfellowattheUniversityofOxfordsFutureofFoodprogramme,
triedtoquantifyjusthowmuchbetter:heandhiscolleaguesbuiltcomputermodelsthatpredicted
whatwouldhappenifeveryonebecamevegetarianby2050.Theresultsindicatethatlargely
thankstotheeliminationofredmeatfoodrelatedemissionswoulddropbyabout60%.Ifthe
worldwentveganinstead,emissionsdeclineswouldbearound70%.
Whenlookingatwhatwouldbeinlinewithavoidingdangerouslevelsofclimatechange,wefound
thatyoucouldonlystabilisetheratiooffoodrelatedemissionstoallemissionsifeveryoneadopted
aplantbaseddiet,Springmannsays.Thatscenarioisnotveryrealisticbutithighlightsthe
importancethatfoodrelatedemissionswillplayinthefuture.

Globalvegetarianismmightimpactfarmersinthedevelopingworldhardest(Credit:iStock)

Food,especiallylivestock,alsotakesupalotofroomasourceofbothgreenhousegas
emissionsduetolandconversionandofbiodiversityloss.Oftheworldsapproximatelyfivebillion
hectares(12billionacres)ofagriculturalland,68%isusedforlivestock.

"
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Ifeveryonebecamevegetarianby2050,foodrelatedemissions
woulddropby60%
Shouldweallgovegetarian,ideallywewoulddedicateatleast80%ofthatpasturelandtothe
restorationofgrasslandsandforests,whichwouldcapturecarbonandfurtheralleviateclimate
change.Convertingformerpasturestonativehabitatswouldlikelyalsobeaboontobiodiversity,
includingforlargeherbivoressuchasbuffalothatwerepushedoutforcattle,aswellasfor
predatorslikewolvesthatareoftenkilledinretaliationforattackinglivestock.
Theremaining10to20%offormerpasturelandcouldbeusedforgrowingmorecropstofillgapsin
thefoodsupply.Thougharelativelysmallincreaseinagriculturalland,thiswouldmorethanmake
upforthelossofmeatbecauseonethirdofthelandcurrentlyusedforcropsisdedicatedto
producingfoodforlivestocknotforhumans.
Bothenvironmentalrestorationandconversiontoplantbasedagriculturewouldrequireplanning
andinvestment,however,giventhanpasturelandstendtobehighlydegraded.Youcouldntjust
takecowsoffthelandandexpectittobecomeaprimaryforestagainonitsown,Jarvissays.
Carnivorouscareers
Peopleformerlyengagedinthelivestockindustrywouldalsoneedassistancetransitioningtoa
newcareer,whetherinagriculture,helpingwithreforestationorproducingbioenergyfromcrop
byproductscurrentlyusedaslivestockfeed.
Somefarmerscouldalsobepaidtokeeplivestockforenvironmentalpurposes.Imsittingherein
ScotlandwheretheHighlandsenvironmentisverymanmadeandbasedlargelyongrazingby
sheep,saysPeterAlexander,aresearcherinsocioecologicalsystemsmodellingatthe
UniversityofEdinburgh.Ifwetookallthesheepaway,theenvironmentwouldlookdifferentand
therewouldbeapotentialnegativeimpactonbiodiversity.
Shouldwefailtoprovideclearcareeralternativesandsubsidiesforformerlivestockrelated
employees,meanwhile,wewouldprobablyfacesignificantunemploymentandsocialupheaval
especiallyinruralcommunitieswithclosetiestotheindustry.

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Ifmeatdroppedfrommenus,theeconomiceffectsworldwidewouldbeprofound(Credit:iStock)

Thereareover3.5billiondomesticruminantsonearth,andtensofbillionsofchickensproduced
andkilledeachyearforfood,saysBenPhalan,whoresearchesthebalancebetweenfood
demandandbiodiversityattheUniversityofCambridge.Wedbetalkingaboutahugeamountof
economicdisruption.
Buteventhebestlaidplansprobablywouldntbeabletoofferalternativelivelihoodsforeveryone.
Aroundonethirdoftheworldslandiscomposedofaridandsemiaridrangelandthatcanonly
supportanimalagriculture.Inthepast,whenpeoplehaveattemptedtoconvertpartsoftheSahel
amassiveeasttoweststripofAfricalocatedsouthoftheSaharaandnorthoftheequatorfrom
livestockpasturetocroplands,desertificationandlossofproductivityhaveensued.Without
livestock,lifeincertainenvironmentswouldlikelybecomeimpossibleforsomepeople,Phalan
says.ThatespeciallyincludesnomadicgroupssuchastheMongolsandBerberswho,strippedof
theirlivestock,wouldhavetosettlepermanentlyincitiesortownslikelylosingtheircultural
identityintheprocess.
Plus,eventhosewhoseentirelivelihoodsdonotdependonlivestockwouldstandtosuffer.Meatis
animportantpartofhistory,traditionandculturalidentity.Numerousgroupsaroundtheworldgive
livestockgiftsatweddings,celebratorydinnerssuchasChristmascentrearoundturkeyorroast
beef,andmeatbaseddishesareemblematicofcertainregionsandpeople.Theculturalimpactof
completelygivingupmeatwouldbeverybig,whichiswhyeffortstoreducemeatconsumption
haveoftenfaltered,Phalansays.

"

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"
Worldwidevegetarianismby2050wouldleadtoaglobal
mortalityreductionofupto10%
Theeffectonhealthismixed,too.Springmannscomputermodelstudyshowedthat,should
everyonegovegetarianby2050,wewouldseeaglobalmortalityreductionof610%,thankstoa
lesseningofcoronaryheartdisease,diabetes,strokeandsomecancers.Eliminatingredmeat
accountsforhalfofthatdecline,whiletheremainingbenefitsarethankstoscalingbackthe
numberofcaloriespeopleconsumeandincreasingtheamountoffruitandvegetablestheyeat.A
worldwidevegandietwouldfurtheramplifythesebenefits:vegetarianismstavesoffabout7million
deathsperyear,whileveganismknocksthatestimateupto8million.Fewerpeoplesufferingfrom
foodrelatedchronicillnesseswouldalsomeanareductioninmedicalbills,savingabout23%of
globalgrossdomesticproduct.

Eventhebestlaidplansprobablywouldntbeabletoofferalternativelivelihoodsforeveryone(Credit:
iStock)

Butrealisingtheseprojectedbenefitswouldrequirereplacingmeatwithnutritionallyappropriate
substitutes.Animalproductscontainmorenutrientspercaloriethanvegetarianstapleslikegrains
andrice,sochoosingtherightreplacementwouldbeimportant,especiallyfortheworlds
estimatedtwobillionplusundernourishedpeople.Goingvegetariangloballycouldcreatea

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healthcrisisinthedevelopingworld,becausewherewouldthemicronutrientscomefrom?Benton
says.
Allinmoderation
Butfortunately,theentireworlddoesntneedtoconverttovegetarianismorveganismtoreap
manyofthebenefitswhilelimitingtherepercussions.
Instead,moderationinmeateatingsfrequencyandportionsizeiskey.Onestudyfoundthat
simplyconformingtotheWorldHealthOrganizationsdietaryrecommendationswouldbringthe
UKsgreenhousegasemissionsdownby17%afigurethatwoulddropbyanadditional40%
shouldcitizensfurtheravoidanimalproductsandprocessedsnacks.Thesearedietarychanges
thatconsumerswouldbarelynotice,likehavingajustslightlysmallerpieceofmeat,Jarvissays.
Itsnotthiseitheror,vegetarianorcarnivorescenario.
Certainchangestothefoodsystemalsowouldencourageusalltomakehealthierandmore
environmentallyfriendlydietarydecisions,saysSpringmannlikeputtingahigherpricetagon
meatandmakingfreshfruitsandvegetablescheaperandmorewidelyavailable.Addressing
inefficiencywouldalsohelp:thankstofoodloss,wasteandovereating,fewerthan50%ofthe
caloriescurrentlyproducedareactuallyusedeffectively.
Thereisawaytohavelowproductivitysystemsthatarehighinanimalandenvironmentalwelfare
aswellasprofitablebecausetheyreproducingmeatasatreatratherthanadailystaple,
Bentonsays.Inthissituation,farmersgettheexactsameincome.Theyrejustgrowinganimalsin
acompletelydifferentway.
Infact,clearsolutionsalreadyexistforreducinggreenhousegasemissionsfromthelivestock
industry.Whatislackingisthewilltoimplementthosechanges.
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