Going plant-based could be essential to the health of people and the planet

The food we eat affects not only our own health, but that of our planet.

Today’s production and consumption patterns have a detrimental impact on the environment, threatening food security in many countries. The food system is responsible for around 20 to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

We know that malnutrition, which includes under- and over-consumption, and micronutrient deficiencies, has a devastating impact on health. According to a recent United Nations study, more than 800 million people worldwide suffered from hunger in 2020 while, at the same time, obesity is increasing, with approximately one billion obese people in the world.

Recent events in Ukraine show how food security can be affected by world events and drew more attention to the disparity between what nations can produce and dependence on imports. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic, rising food and fuel prices, and extreme weather conditions linked to climate change are creating a perfect storm for food insecurity.

A significant increase in global food insecurity is inevitable without intervention. Production and consumption patterns must be transformed urgently to improve health, increase food and nutrition security and limit damage to the planet.

Dietary changes will vary from economy to economy

Our work at The University of Aberdeen is exploring possible solutions to thisexamining how we can move towards healthier and more environmentally friendly diets that are both affordable and accessible.

Sustainable diets are defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as those “with low environmental impact that contribute to food and nutrition security and healthy lives for present and future generations. . Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically equitable and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.

living cost of meat
Could we see meat consumption in Scotland drop significantly in the future? (Photo: stockfour/Shutterstock)

But, efforts to meet this definition cannot take a “one size fits all” approach. The types of dietary changes needed will vary across economies, with those in high-income countries needing to reduce their consumption of foods that contribute to high emissions, such as animal products. However, it is necessary to ensure that any dietary change benefits both human health and the planet.

One approach we took to establish what sustainable diets might look like in practice was to use mathematical modeling techniques to create diets that met nutrient needs, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. . We started with diets in the UK realizing that for change to be successful, new diets must be both familiar and acceptable to the consumer.

The results showed a general reluctance to reduce meat consumption

The biggest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be achieved by eliminating meat and dairy from the diet but, despite the increased profile of veganism, less than 1% of the UK population currently consumes a vegan diet. For this reason, these substantial changes are unlikely to be acceptable to the vast majority.

Additionally, while an all-plant diet can provide most micronutrients, the elimination of all animal products must be carefully managed to prevent micronutrient deficiencies.

It’s all about protecting the environment

We used focus group discussions with adults and young people and behavioral experiments to explore attitudes towards sustainable diets and willingness to make dietary changes, particularly eating less meat. The results showed a general reluctance to reduce meat consumption.

Although some people were concerned about climate change, few were aware of the connection to food. They viewed other behaviors, such as recycling or reducing packaging, as more acceptable.

We generally view reducing food packaging as more beneficial to the environment than changing the way we eat (Photo: Newman Studio/Shutterstock)

To build on this research, we incorporated other environmental attributes to determine the contribution of current UK diets to land use, both at home and abroad, and how this land footprint might be reduced.

Like greenhouse gas emissions, livestock and animal feed production used the most land, but other commodities, such as coffee and cocoa, accounted for much of the use. overseas land for food in the UK.

We need solutions to help global health

Along with other studies, this research clearly illustrates the complexity of implementing sustainable diets in practice. It also highlights the importance of not looking at nutrition and health separately to see the environmental impacts of the food system.

It’s not an easy task, but it’s a task we all need to embrace. Our research helps illuminate the trade-offs between key attributes of this complex issue, such as nutrition, environment, habitual consumption patterns, affordability, and the desirability and acceptability of a diet.

Evidence from our research was used to develop the Guiding Principles for Healthy and Sustainable Diets, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization in 2019.

Aberdeen’s research improves understanding of sustainable diets at a critical time when solutions are needed to tackle climate change and the global health crisis.


Jennie Macdiarmid is Professor of Sustainable Nutrition and Health at the University of Aberdeen

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[Going plant-based could be critical to the health of people and planet]

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