Dietary do-over: impact of meat and veganism

14 November 2018

Ingredients Insight reports on the environmental impact of eating meat and asks the all-important question: can we be superheroes and save the planet by leading a vegan lifestyle?

A healthy lifestyle is a way of living that lowers the risk of being seriously ill or dying early,” according to a 1999 document from the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, which acknowledged that not all diseases and their infliction on humans are the result of how we live. In the same piece, the organisation looked at nutrition policy, infant feeding and food security, stating that “Not all diseases are preventable, but a large proportion of deaths, particularly those from coronary heart disease and lung cancer, can be avoided.” It added, “Scientific studies have identified certain types of behaviour that contribute to the development of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and early death. Health is not only just about avoiding disease: it is also about physical, mental and social well-being. When a healthy lifestyle is adopted, a more positive role model is provided to other people in the family, particularly children.”

What was said then remains true today, unlike some of what we thought we knew, which has been challenged by the rapid evolution of science. In the time since the document’s publication, our understanding of food, how we live and the world around us have changed significantly. People are now – more keenly than ever – aware of the impact the planet has on the way they live and how they occupy the Earth – they are inextricably linked.

The rise of veganism

For those who are less ‘green’, hearing that what they eat today will shape the world they live in tomorrow may be perplexing, but for others, it simply reaffirms what experts have said for many years. The rising popularity of the vegan diet supports that.

Earlier this year, the Food Revolution Network (FRN) declared the global rise in vegan and plant-based eating wasn’t just a fad. Citing forecasts and predictions from the likes of Nestlé, and food and restaurant consultant Baum + Whiteman, FRN said global demand was rising and looked set to continue its growth spurt. The network referenced a report from GlobalData, which found there had been a 600% increase in US consumers claiming to be vegan in 2014–17. That figure was statistically correct but a note of caution should be added: the study concluded that, in 2014, 1% of Americans identified as vegan, while 2017 saw that number surge to 6%.

FRN’s website says it is an “education and advocacy-driven organisation committed to healthy, sustainable, humane and conscious food for all”. It also places “a high value on maintaining an open mind, engaging in continual learning and putting science before ideology. We work to expose the damage the industrialised food industry, with its reliance on pesticides and chemicals, is doing to humans, animals and our environment… We work towards a world where healthy food is affordable and accessible to everyone.” This a is noble ambition, but it has to be said that, by its own admission, the network has a clearly defined position on the issue.

However, that does not diminish FRN’s argument for reducing the level of meat consumption worldwide. In the same article on veganism, it quoted a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “A global reduction in meat consumption between 2016 and 2050 could save up to eight million lives per year, $31 trillion in reduced costs from healthcare and climate change – and, even, the planet.”

Half a degree from disaster

In October, this notion was supported by authors of a report from the United Nations (UN)’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that we have 12 years to keep global warming at 1.5°C, in order to limit the catastrophic effects of climate change. If temperatures rise by even 0.5°C, billions could be hit by droughts, flooding, unbearable heat and poverty. This is a tiny margin for altering the way we live now, in the hope of influencing future generations.

David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, released a statement following the report’s launch, saying, “Climate change is having – and will have – devastating effects on a wide range of human rights, including rights to life, health, food, housing and water, as well as the right to a healthy environment. The world is already witnessing the impacts of climate change, from hurricanes in America, heat waves in Europe, droughts in Africa to floods in Asia.”

With its stark warnings about extreme weather events, and the resulting poverty and starvation of millions, the report proposed the usual targets for climate change concerning energy and big industry, but these were followed by the scientists focusing on agriculture, society’s diets and the impacts they have on the planet. They turned attention to farming and transport, urging policymakers to do more to cut emissions. Gasses from cows and current farming practices, such as land management, were identified by UN experts as being a cause of the world’s environmental woes.

Another major study from the UK’s University of Oxford came hot on the heels of the IPCC report. Published in Nature, it found that farming practices must be revaluated to prevent the world from being unable to feed the ten billion people that will inhabit it by 2050.

Lead researcher Dr Marco Springmann said, “We are really risking the sustainability of the whole system. If we are interested in people being able to farm and eat, then we better not do that.” His team’s work called for quick and significant action, including a huge reduction in the amount of meat eaten. In the West, they said, beef consumption had to fall by a staggering 90%.

“There is no magic bullet,” Springmann added. “But dietary and technological change [on farms] are the two essential things, and hopefully they can be complemented by [a] reduction in food loss and waste.” The ambitious changes needed to achieve this goal include more people adopting a flexitarian diet, the careful use of fertilisers, and changing menus in schools and workplaces.

Springmann was confident that things can turn around, but he stated that “we really need much more proactive governments to provide the right framework”. He did, however, express that change is already being introduced; for example, young people in cities are eating less meat.

A day for ending hunger

The release of both studies was quite fortuitous, given World Food Day fell on 16 October. Organised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the event aims to rid the world of hunger by 2030.

On its website, the FAO says, “Whether you’re a business, farmer, government representative or simply someone that’s willing to make a change, you can take action for #ZeroHunger.”

Various events took place in farflung destinations, from Madagascar to Rome, Mexico City and South Korea, including panel discussions, street celebrations and even a cooking marathon. Key messages endorsed wasting less food, producing more from limited resources and changing our diets to reflect the challenges we face.

The proof is in the diet

So can a vegan diet really help? Is it a healthy lifestyle choice or could it do more harm than good?

First and foremost, a 2015 report from WHO stated that red meats are a probable carcinogen and eating 50g of processed meat daily increased the risk of colon cancer by 18%; however, it stressed that eating meat has known health benefits, but it is advisable to limit the intake of processed and red varieties.

As more of us have got to grips with the vegan proposal, it’s clear that healthier options can be found in a plant-based diet.

Preparation is key, according to the Vegan Society (VS), which said, “Wellplanned vegan diets follow healthy eating guidelines and contain all the nutrients that our bodies need… Getting your nutrients from plant foods allows more room in your diet for health-promoting options. If you make smart choices, a vegan diet can be a really healthy way of eating. Get the most out of yours by limiting salt and eating plenty of whole grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables. These foods are packed full of beneficial fibre, vitamins and minerals.”

VS identifies health benefits that are supported by research, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as decreased rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. On the other hand, this diet is not suitable for everyone and can be deleterious to some, particularly those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Despite this, being vegan does have clear advantages and it’s also reasonable, in light of all the research available, to believe that this lifestyle holds environmental benefits too. Like everything in life – particularly our diets – it requires balance, not in terms of ‘one day on, one day off’, but weighing the pros against the cons and deciding whether to embrace a new way of life.

The low-down on a healthy diet

According to WHO, a healthy diet varies with each individual, but the basic components remain the same:

  • A healthy diet helps to protect against malnutrition in all its forms, as well as NCDs, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
  • An unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity are leading global risks to health.
  • Healthy dietary practices start early in life: breastfeeding fosters healthy growth and improves cognitive development, and may have longer-term health benefits, such as reducing the risk of becoming overweight or obese and developing NCDs later in life.
  • Energy intake (calories) should be in balance with energy expenditure. To avoid unhealthy weight gain, total fat should not exceed 30% of total energy intake. Intake of saturated fats should be less than 10% of total energy intake, and intake of trans fats less than 1% of total energy intake, with a shift in fat consumption moving away from saturated fats and trans fats to unsaturated fats, and towards the goal of eliminating industrially produced trans fats.
  • Limiting intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake is part of a healthy diet. A further reduction to less than 5% of total energy intake is suggested for additional health benefits.
  • Keeping salt intake to less than 5g per day (equivalent to sodium intake of less than 2g per day) helps to prevent hypertension, and reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke in the adult population.
  • WHO Member States have agreed to reduce the global population’s intake of salt by 30% by 2025. They have also agreed to halt the rise in diabetes and obesity in adults and adolescents, as well as in childhood overweight, by 2025.

Source: WHO

The UN has been one of the loudest voices calling for change, with a cautionary report from the IPCC recently being published.

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