Plant-Based Diet Is Best for the Planet, New Science Says

Nov 18, 2014

Photo: Getty Images

By Elizabeth Grossman

Alternative diets could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Good food advocates have long argued that what’s good for your health is also good for the planet, but new science now backs up the claim. A paper published in the journal Nature by scientists at the University of Minnesota, presents numbers that suggest eating less meat, less refined fat, and less sugar will also reduce the climate change impacts of food production.

Using about 50 years’ worth of data from the world’s 100 most populous countries, UM Professor of Ecology G. David Tilman and graduate student Michael Clark show how current diet trends are contributing, not only to diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, but also to dangerously increasing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

“This is the first time this data has been put together to show these links are real and strong and not just the mutterings of food lovers and environmental advocates,” explains Tilman.

“Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases,” write Tilman and Clark in the Nature article.


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11 comments on “Plant-Based Diet Is Best for the Planet, New Science Says

  • The problem with meat is it has such a huge water, land, energy and carbon footprint. On the other paw, it can be grown on marginal land. With climate change much of our farmland will be suitable for nothing but raising goats.

    Growing in BC where I live has been lower every year as farmland is paved for homes. We are dependent on California, which is havinging a serious drought. Prices keep rising.

    We have to stop population growth and protect our farmland



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  • Roedy Nov 19, 2014 at 1:49 am

    The problem with meat is it has such a huge water, land, energy and carbon footprint. On the other paw, it can be grown on marginal land. With climate change much of our farmland will be suitable for nothing but raising goats.

    . . . .

    @OP – Plant-Based Diet Is Best for the Planet,

    1,500,000 wildebeest and 790,000 caribou can’t be wrong!



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  • Trouble with plants is the ones we eat can’t be grown just anywhere. Many of them have very specific climactic germination cycles. Of the few hundred that are edible they can’t be grown all year round and only a mere handful like the cereals can be stored for a long time without freezing and using more energy.



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  • Tiffany Nov 21, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Your sources are showing. The writer, Mrs. Grossman, Works for CivilEats which is anti GMO and Anti Meat

    Whatever the biases of a particular author, the journal “Nature” is a top source of validly checked scientific information.

    @OP- A paper published in the journal Nature by scientists at the University of Minnesota, presents numbers that suggest eating less meat, less refined fat, and less sugar will also reduce the climate change impacts of food production.

    That there is approximately a 90% loss of energy (ie. waste), at each step in the food-chain in producing meat, is simply a repeatedly measured fact.

    What we decide about how such facts impinge on our life-styles, is a separate issue.



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  • A point that is missed in this discussion is that the great majority of the peoples of the worlds diet is largely and in many cases almost exclusively, vegetarian already. Further, this has been the case for many, many years.

    Even for Europe, until the progressive enrichment of the newly created middle classes that followed the industrial revolution, meat was reserved for a festive occasion, or an occasional luxury. Yes, people like Henry VIII consumed huge quantities of meat, but he hardly typified the population at large.

    It is the meat addicted Western democracies, the USA, Australia, et als that really own this problem. The rest of the world, even the newly rich of China, despite trying to adopt all our bad habits at breakneck pace, represent a small part of the problem compared to us.



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  • There’s also a massive waste of radiant energy from the Sun owing to the inverse square effect. This makes solar energy, the energy source for most life on Earth, an extremely inefficient system. Which is a bad thing. Efficiency being inherently good, therefore inefficiency and waste should be prevented at all costs.

    The problem with food energy chains from Sun to human via meat is that the Sun is way too big, the Earth is too small and too far away, and that the relatively tiny residual wasteful energy inefficiencies from plant growth to meat consumption are directed towards an excessively large human population.

    We can fix this either by turning up the Sun, moving Earth closer to the Sun, or reducing the human population. Global warming is only a pseudo solution as it makes everything hotter but doesn’t alter the net energy incidence to plants, only the retained thermal energy in the atmosphere and oceans. Human population reduction seems to be the most efficient solution. Less overall energy required to achieve the necessary outcome. This option is available now. We already have the technology, the opportunity, and there’s plenty of religious people who have the motive. We can retain our preferred idiotic life styles indefinitely, but this inevitably implies eliminating the life styles of most of the idiots. Nature is not particularly fair, or efficient. Especially in journal form.



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  • JC Sheepdog Nov 21, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Even for Europe, until the progressive enrichment of the newly created middle classes that followed the industrial revolution, meat was reserved for a festive occasion, or an occasional luxury. Yes, people like Henry VIII consumed huge quantities of meat, but he hardly typified the population at large.

    Unfortunately the sorts of self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption which used to be the prerogative of the aristocrats, spread first to the nouveau-rich of the industrial revolution, and then to affluent industrial countries.

    We need to grow out of the infantile, mentality of: “I’m a fat slob snob, who looks important, by throwing money around and wasting resources”, (executive jet, stretch-Humvee, $million yacht, potlatch-parties in 5 star hotels).

    Not only are many people damaging the planet and its life-support systems.
    Their poor diet, alcoholism, and obesity is damaging their own health!

    (The wealthy “great Victorian drinkers of wine, and eaters of beef” were noted for their sufferings from gout!)



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  • Pete H Nov 22, 2014 at 5:38 am

    The problem with food energy chains from Sun to human via meat is that the Sun is way too big, the Earth is too small and too far away, and that the relatively tiny residual wasteful energy inefficiencies from plant growth to meat consumption are directed towards an excessively large human population.

    We can fix this either by turning up the Sun, moving Earth closer to the Sun, or reducing the human population.

    Or we could keep our flocks and herds on Mercury or Venus, and see if they like their veg ready cooked as it grows. We could also see they produced ready cooked meat!!! Or maybe not!!



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