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Meat reducers a third more planet-friendly than meat eaters

Research shows low-meat diet vastly better for the environment than high-meat diet

Posted : 31 July 2023

In a climate race against meat eaters, where speed equates to environmental friendliness and the stakes are the future of the species, you’d expect vegans to romp home, with vegetarians a close second and the carnivores puffing and wheezing across the line in last place. But who’s that plucky outsider taking a magnificent bronze? Why, it’s an MFMer!

A new report that compares the environmental impact of various dietary choices has revealed that meat reducers – those of us who are trying to curb our consumption for the sake of the planet – have as much as a third less impact on the environment as those with a diet high in meat.

The study by the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, in Oxford, published in the journal Nature Food, benchmarked the dietary data of more than 55,000 Britons against the effect their choices are having on the planet, taking into account harmful greenhouse gas emissions, impact on nature, water use, water pollution and land use.

The researchers looked at high and low-meat diets, pescatarian, vegetarian and plant-based diets. Vegans, as you might expect, have a far lighter environmental footprint than those with a high-meat diet. In fact, the impact on the planet of those for whom no meal is complete without a pork sausage is four times higher than those who survive and thrive on fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Lead author Professor Peter Scarborough said the “clear relationship” between animal products and the environment was often obscured by “cherry-picking data on high-impact plant-based food or low-impact meat”. But he said the report, based on environmental data from more than 38,000 farms in 119 countries, demonstrated that “high-meat diets have the biggest impact for many important environmental indicators, including climate change and biodiversity loss”.

In fact, he added, even when most of the food eaten by meat-reducers was produced in the most environmentally unfriendly way, and most of the food in a committed carnivore’s diet was produced in a low-impact way (see the debunked claims about organic meat or grass-fed beef), “low-meat diets still have substantially lower environmental impact” than high-meat diets – at least 30 per cent lower across the five indicators.

That is to say, it’s all about the amount of meat you eat. The less you eat, the better it is for the planet.

Compared with a high-meat diet, a plant-based diet requires 25 per cent of the land, uses 46 per cent of the water and causes 27 per cent of the water pollution and results in 34 per cent of the biodiversity loss.

The report adds to the growing body of evidence to show that cutting down on meat and animal products is the way to go to protect nature, the planet and our health. In 2014, research from Oxford University found that going meat free could cut carbon emissions in half, and another report a couple of years later revealed that if most of us became vegetarian, global food emissions would be slashed by two thirds.

Read the report

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