New research has revealed that if we want to reduce our dietary impact on the planet, it’s time to start tailoring what we eat to where we live – and in Britain that means eating plant-based food more often than not.
A long-term study by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, in the US, looked at the impact on the climate and fresh water of nine plant-strong diets in 140 countries, and found that the environmental impact of meat reducing depends on how food is sourced and your geographic location. That’s because the alternatives to meat are different in other parts of the world, where making that change is not as simple as updating your supermarket shopping list.
The transition to a plant-based diet needs to happen sooner in wealthier countries, the report concludes, in order to soak up the carbon produced in lower-income countries where meat and dairy are the easiest nutritional choice. The carbon cost of food is different too: producing a steak in Paraguay, for example, where deforestation to create land to raise beef cattle is rife, creates 17 times the amount of carbon dioxide of a Danish steak.
“Different countries have different priorities and are at different stages of development – meaning there are different imperatives for these countries and their populations,” said study co-author Martin Bloem, a director of the Johns Hopkins Center, adding that there is no “one-size-fits-all, western-centric solution”.
“A top-down diktat that recommends a plant-based diet without taking into account the nutritional needs of vulnerable populations or the availability of certain foodstuffs is neither helpful nor appropriate,” he said.
Here in the UK, many of those who decide to stop eating meat not only continue to eat cheese, butter, milk and eggs, but increase their consumption of these. The diet of the average omnivorous Briton adds the equivalent of almost 2,000kg of carbon dioxide a year to the atmosphere, a quarter of that due to dairy products – but it rises to two-thirds for vegetarians.
The report says that omnivores who cut out dairy could slash their carbon footprint by 61 per cent, compared with 36 per cent by going vegetarian. The report suggests meat reducers should actually consider a “two-thirds vegan” diet – cutting dairy from two out of every three meals.
However you look at it, moving towards a plant-based diet benefits the planet and one meat free day a week is a good way to start. Johns Hopkins, which works closely with MFM’s American sister organisation, Meatless Monday, makes it clear that while joining MFM constitutes a small dietary change, it leads to people eating more veggie and vegan meals throughout the week.
So the most positive move you can make, on a Meat Free Monday and beyond, is to fill your plate with as much delicious, nutritious plant-based food as you can.