Author: Jono Drew
Founding Member, Plant-Based Living Initiative

Society /
‍‍‍The triple benefit of plant-ba‍‍‍sed living

What if the global population followed a plant-based pattern of eating- how many lives could be spared, how much ill-health could be prevented, how much money could be saved, and to what extent could the impacts of climate change be mitigated‍‍‍?

The short answer, according to a group of researchers at Oxford University, is that:

  • global mortality could be reduced by 10 percent
  • ‍‍food-related greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent‍‍
  • financial savings of as much as $43 trillion (NZD) could be achieved- the equivalent to 13 percent of the expected global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050.

‍‍‍A final note

It is clear that a global transition toward a plant-based lifestyle would greatly reduce the burden of chronic disease, while helping to mitigate climate change and reduce health-care expenditure. The authors of the above research conclude that:

"(t)here is a general consensus that dietary change across the globe can have multiple health, environmental, and economic benefits. Our analysis confirms this view and takes a step forward in providing better estimates of the magnitude of the possible benefits... The size of the projected benefits, even taking into account all of the caveats about the unavoidable sources of uncertainty in our work, should encourage researchers and policy makers to act to improve consumption patterns... We hope our work will help identify the targeted, region-specific interventions that will be needed on both the production and consumption sides of the food system to achieve these benefits."

The climate benefit

A global shift toward a plant-based lifestyle would also be of great benefit to the environment and help to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The analysis by Springmann et al. found that diet-related greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. those associated with food production and consumption) could be reduced by 63-70% if everybody consumed an abundance of vegetables and pulses and avoided meat, eggs, and dairy, while conforming to global dietary guidelines (including low sugar intake). Again, this is considered to be a conservative estimate by the researchers, due to certain contributing factors not being accounted for.

Given t‍‍‍hat the global food system is a key contributor to climate pollution (the agriculture, forestry, and other land-use sector is responsible for nearly one-quarter of annual global greenhouse gas emissions), such a reduction could be pivotal with regard to achieving our commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement.

The health benefit

A global transition away from both highly processed foods and animal products would have major implications for human health. If everybody conformed to global dietary guidelines (including five daily portions of fruit and vegetables, no more than 50 grams of sugar and 43 grams of red meat per day, and a healthy overall energy intake), 5.1 million deaths and 79 million years of life being lost to ill-health or premature death could be prevented annually.

Following a healthy plant-based eating pattern (i.e. meeting global dietary guidelines, consuming an abundance of vegetables and pulses, and excluding all meat, eggs, and dairy) confers an even greater benefit:

  • roughly 8.1 million deaths could be avoided every year (this is roughly equivalent to the total number of people who die from ischemic heart disease each year)
  • combined global deaths from‍‍‍ heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type-2 diabetes could be reduced by 19 percent
  • approximately 129 million years of life currently lost to ill-health or premature death could be avoided annually
  • and global mortality could be reduced by 10%.

In both scenarios, the majority of prevented deaths would result from the reduction, or elimination, of red meat from the diet. Increased fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as lower overall energy intake, would also be responsible for a significant share of the prevented deaths.

The authors emphasise that their calculations are likely to underestimate the true benefit of plant-based eating patterns. For instance, due to a lack of data, the health benefits of whole grains– a staple of a whole food, plant-based eating pattern– were not considered within the analysis.

The cost benefit

Aside from the health and environmental benefits of plant-based living, there is also the potential for significant cost savings to be achieved in the context of society-wide dietary change. By helping to keep people well and reducing the 'cost-of-illness' (i.e. direct health-care costs; costs of unpaid, informal care; and the cost of not being able to work because of death or disability), Springmann et al. estimated that plant-based eating patterns, if adopted globally, could provide annual savings of around $1.5 trillion NZD.

In addition, the researchers calculated that the years of life gained from adhering to a healthy, plant-based diet would carry a global value of $41 trillion NZD (this translates to the moneterised value of living longer, i.e. how much people would be willing to pay for an incremental reduction in their mortality risk).

Finally, the financial benefits that plant-based diets confer by helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change and the costs associated with climate pollution were also estimated. Springmann et al. calculated that a global transition to a healthy, plant-based diet ‍‍could, by way of reducing environmental harms, save approximately $780 billion NZD per year.

In combination, such global cost savings could amount to around $43 trillion NZD per year‍‍‍- the equivalent to 13 percent of the expected global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050.‍‍‍

‍‍‍We project that health and climate change benefits will both be greater the lower the fraction of animal-sourc‍‍‍ed foods in our diets. The monetized value of health improvements could be comparable with, and possibly larger than, the environmental benefits of the avoided damages from climate change... Springmann et al., 2016

February 22 201‍‍‍8

‍‍‍©  2016, Plant Based Living Initiative

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