The Food Working Group is a diverse team formed by physicians, food scientists, dietitians, researchers and administrators with the common goal of promoting a sustainable food system across Providence Health Care.
Not long ago, meat was largely enjoyed on special occasions and by those rich enough to afford it. However, more and more, meat is becoming a staple of every diet and every meal around the world. In fact, global meat consumption has increased fivefold over the past seven decades – from 44 million tons in 1950 to 242 million tons (1). This increase is not only due to population growth, per capita meat consumption has also more than doubled over the same period, from 17 kg per person per year to a worldwide average of 39 kg (2). This trend is expected to continue with experts estimating the demand for animal-based foods to increase by 68% by 2050 (3).
Well, despite providing only a fifth of the calories we eat and drink, the livestock industry currently accounts for more than half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions (4). To put this in perspective, the carbon emissions from livestock is greater than the emissions from all passenger vehicles in the world (5).
Shifting to a plant-rich diet
This is why many scientists advocate for a shift away from animal-based diets to more plant-rich diets in the fight against climate change. Recent scientific studies show that one of the most impactful things you can do to reduce your environmental impact is to reduce your meat and dairy consumption. For instance, one study calculated the effect of 50–75% of people reducing meat consumption (and especially red meat consumption to 57 grams per day) over 30 years and found that at least 54.19–78.48 gigatons of emissions could be avoided from dietary change alone. Limiting ruminant meat (i.e., cattle, goat, sheep and other hoofed herbivorous mammals) intake to about 50 calories per person per day (the equivalent of around 1.5 hamburgers per person per week) is estimated to nearly eliminate the need for further agricultural expansion (and associated deforestation) between now and 2050 (6).
The double food pyramid
The shift towards more plant-based diets not only helps to combat climate change, but is also usually better for your health. Many studies have independently found that low-emission diets also tend to be healthier (7). The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition designed a “double food pyramid” to help align the nutritional value of food with its presumed environmental and climate impacts, showing that foods with a lower environmental impact are also usually better for one’s health (higher in nutrients and associated with reducing risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer) while foods with a high environmental impact should be consumed only in moderation (Figure 1.) (7, 8).
Figure 1. Double food pyramid by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition.
The answer to the climate crisis doesn’t solely rely on our diets, but our diets do play a valuable role and the transition to more plant-rich diets is an important part of the answer. So, if you are considering transitioning to a more plant-rich diet, experts recommend starting with small changes. This could look like having a plant-based meal once a week and might include experimenting with new foods, ingredients, and spices. For more information and inspiration, please come visit the upcoming “Plant Power” event hosted by our very own PHC Environmental Stewardship Team on October 16th 2023 at St. Paul’s Hospital and check out the resources listed below.
- Noam Mohr, A New Global Warming Strategy. How environmentalists are overlooking vegetarianism as the most effective tool against climate change in our lifetimes. EarthSave International Report (2005)
- John W Powles Anthony J McMichael, Colin D. Butler, Ricardo Uauy. Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health. Lancet, 370 (9594), pp. 1253-1263. (2007)
- Searchinger, T., R. Waite, C. Hanson, J. Ranganathan, P. Dumas, and
E. Matthews. World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future—A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050. Final report. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. www. sustainablefoodfuture.org. (2019)
- Poore, J., & Nemecek, T.. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987–992. (2018)
- Christopher D. Cook. Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry is Killing Us. New Press, New York (2004)
- Accuardi et al. Plant-Rich Diets. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/plant-rich-diets
- Tilman, D., & Clark, M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature, 515 (7528), 518–522. (2014)