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Plant-based diets have smaller carbon footprint

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A recent UK study highlighted the disparity in greenhouse gas emissions linked to various diets.

There are plenty of reasons consumers may be interested in a plant-based diet—concerns about animal welfare, a desire to eat healthier foods, and even simple curiosity among them.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK now points to yet another reason consumers may want to try a more plant-forward diet: The environment. According to the study, plant-based diets produce a significantly lower amount of greenhouse gas than a meat-based diet (PLOS ONE 16(11): e0259418). This means that not only is eating plant-based better for animal welfare, it may just be better for planetary welfare as well.

“To move beyond general advice at the population level to specific advice tailored to the individual requires measures of environmental sustainability applied to a comprehensive range of specific food items at a more granular level,” the authors wrote, explaining the reason for this kind of study. They also chose to track greenhouse gas emissions, rather than other environmental benchmarks like land and water usage, because “this is where associations between health and environmental gains have previously appeared strongest,” the authors noted.

The study tracked a cohort of 212 participants using an online food tracking tool and traditional interviews.

According to the results, meat was, by far, the largest greenhouse gas contributor in terms of diet-related emissions, accounting for nearly one-third (32%) of diet-related greenhouse gas. Other notable contributors to diet-related greenhouse gas emissions included coffee, tea and alcohol (15%); dairy products (14%); and cakes, cookies and candies (8%). In total, a non-vegetarian diet was linked to 59% more greenhouse gas emissions than a vegetarian diet. Due to discrepancies in average meat consumption (among other factors), men were also responsible for 41% more greenhouse gas emissions from their diets than women. Interestingly, whether man or woman, vegetarian or meat-eater, a link was found between those individuals who met dietary recommendations and lower emissions.

“Those who met dietary recommendations had generally lower diet-related GHG emissions, suggesting future policies to encourage sustainable dietary patterns and plant-based diets could be good for both individual and planetary health,” the authors concluded.

While the study linked plant-based diets to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the authors did note there were some limitations to a study which only measured that one aspect of environmental impact. While noting that greenhouse gas emissions invoke the greatest consumer response, the authors did remark that, in future studies, “multiple environmental impacts need consideration to ensure cohesion within the food production system. For example, although nuts and olive oil have a relatively low [greenhouse gas] emissions impact, water use is high.”

While the authors note the study’s limitations in dealing only with greenhouses gasses, the findings are important in the context of promoting plant-based eating and environmental sustainability. Climate change represents a real threat to the globe, and while greenhouse gasses may be only a part of the equation, it is a large, easily understood part. Consumers are likely to understand that plant-based eating, in addition to obvious positive impacts on animal life and noted health benefits, may be a small step individuals can take to lower their carbon footprint.

 

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