1 February 2021
Vegetarianism: Should We Rethink its Role in Sustainability?
Photo Credit: Alex Hudson on Unsplash
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Shifting to a plant-based diet has the potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce environmental degradation, and promote a healthy diet.

However, policy makers should explore the range of impacts this shift can have on various populations.

By understanding these impacts, policy makers can create a truly sustainable agriculture system.

By Nathanial Konrad, Amy Shearer, Jake Schwartz, Ulrich Monthe

Vegetarianism is often touted as a way to achieve better health outcomes and decrease humanity’s ecological footprint, yet it has not translated into significant policy action.[1] A vegetarian diet is associated with a reduction in risk of type II diabetes, cancer, coronary mortality, and overall mortality compared to the typical meat-centric omnivorous diet common in developed countries.[2] It also is projected to contribute to a significant reduction in environmental degradation from lowered greenhouse gas emissions and land usage.[3]

Although the benefits of vegetarian diets are clear and widely accepted, policymakers must consider other factors to translate these benefits into effective policy action and a smooth transition.[4] The considerations include loss of income for certain farmers and pastoralists, reliance on global markets for food imports, and specific cases in which meat may be beneficial. By understanding the diverse impacts caused by a shift to a vegetarian diet, especially on the poor, policymakers can create a truly sustainable agriculture system.  

Pressure on the agriculture industry due to climate change is making the ability to earn a livelihood producing food increasingly difficult. A global shift to a plant-focused diet could introduce further concerns due to price fluctuations in the agriculture industry. A transition to lower meat consumption would reduce the amount of crops produced for livestock feed.[5] In turn, the price of these inputs would drop in tandem with a reduction in the price of meat in the long term.[6] While these changing prices would seem beneficial for the consumer, the producer’s needs must be considered as well. The reduced cost would lead to lower revenues for the producers, whether they are growing animal feed or raising livestock.[7]

Another issue to consider when transitioning to a plant-based diet is crop seasonality. Because fruits and vegetables are only in season for part of the year, many countries rely on imports once their growing season has ended.[8] This trading pattern causes greenhouse gas emissions through air, land, and sea transport. For instance, asparagus imported to England from Peru produces 5.3 kg of carbon dioxide for every 1 kg of asparagus [9]. Further, transportation emissions are not the only downside to consider. Popular foods like avocados, mangoes, and nuts have massive water inputs and are often grown in areas that are becoming increasingly water insecure.[10] While a vegetarian diet is associated with lower emissions, it does not mean that all plant-based foods are off the hook for considering their environmental footprint. To address these potential environmental impacts, many researchers suggest that people should eat seasonal and locally produced foods, irrespective of being vegetarian.[11]

It is widely agreed that the global rise in meat consumption, specifically in highly developed countries, has resulted in an increase in cardiovascular-related deaths.[12] However this is not to say that meat cannot be a beneficial source of vitamins and nutrients if eaten in moderation. More specifically, meat consumption can provide a high concentration of protein for children and undernourished people in developing countries.[13] An additional benefit of meat consumption is that livestock can graze on lands that are unsuitable for crops. Grazing on marginal lands increases the efficiency of food systems and production, providing another valuable food source to populations and increasing income for producers.[14] Managed livestock grazing can also improve ecosystem health; intensive managed grazing can improve soil nutrition, increase carbon sequestration, and promote biodiversity on grazed lands.[15] 

Adopting a vegetarian diet is not a one-size-fits-all solution for addressing the environmental impacts of food production. It presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for governments and development practitioners around the world. Shifting to a plant-based diet has the potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce environmental degradation, and promote a healthy diet. However, the reduction of meat consumption has implications for farmers’ livelihoods, among other considerations that decision makers should address.

When considering the transition to a vegetarian diet, policy makers should explore the range of impacts this shift can have on various populations. It is necessary to approach these problems on a case-by-case basis and provide localized solutions. Incentivizing localized plant and meat-based food chains can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food transport. Furthermore, the adoption of integrated crop-livestock systems and managed grazing can help restore soils and promote biodiversity.[16] Policies like these emphasize agro-ecological solutions within our current food systems rather than a complete shift to a new food system. Ultimately, it is important to recognize that plant-based diets also have ecological and socioeconomic impacts, which must be kept in mind by policy makers moving forward.

This article was authored by Nathanial Konrad, Amy Shearer, Jake Schwartz, Ulrich Monthe. Konrad is an International Relations and Affairs M.A. candidate at The George Washington University. Shearer and Schwartz are Environmental Resource Policy M.A. candidates at The George Washington University. Monthe is an International Development Studies M.A. candidate at The George Washington University.

[1] Fresán, U., & Sabaté, J. 2019. “Vegetarian Diets: Planetary Health and Its Alignment with Human Health.” Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 10(Suppl_4), S380–S388. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz019

[2] Tilman, David, and Michael Clark. 2014. “Global Diets Link Environmental Sustainability and Human Health.” Nature 515 (7528). Nature Publishing Group: 518–22. doi:10.1038/nature13959.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Tirado-von der Pahlen, Cristina. 2017. “Sustainable Diets for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet.” United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition. Retrieved from: https://www.unscn.org/uploads/web/news/document/Climate-Nutrition-Paper-EN-WEB.pdf

[5] Lusk, L. Jayson, and Norwood, Bailey. 2009. “Some Economic Benefits and Costs of Vegetarianism.” Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, 38(2), 109-124. Cambridge University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1068280500003142

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Karp, David. 2018. “Most of America’s Fruit Is Now Imported. Is That a Bad Thing?” Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/dining/fruit-vegetables-imports.html

[9] Gray, Richard. 2020. “Why the vegan diet is not always green.” British Broadcasting Company. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200211-why-the-vegan-diet-is-not-always-green

[10] Ibid. 

[11] Ibid.

[12] Eating red meat daily triples heart disease-related chemical. 2019. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/eating-red-meat-daily-triples-heart-disease-related-chemical

[13] Friel, Sharon, et al. 2009. “Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: food and agriculture.” The Lancet, Health and Climate Change, Volume 374, Issue 9706, P2016-2025. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61753-0

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nargi, Lela. 2018. “Can Cows Help Mitigate Climate Change? Yes, They Can!” JSTOR Daily. Retrieved from: https://daily.jstor.org/can-cows-help-mitigate-climate-change-yes-they-can/

[16] Ibid.

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