ENDANGERED PLANET: The Earth seen from the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 17 in 1972. A new study says a vegetarian diet is significantly less damaging to the environment than a non-vegetarian diet, and with the added bonus of being healthier. Photo credit: NASA

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For Want of a T-Bone Steak the Biosphere Was Lost

, director of communications for the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University

An old proverb goes, “For want of a nail the kingdom was lost,” meaning that the smallest of actions sometimes leads to the direst of consequences.

Scientists believe that current trends in the demand for meat worldwide are unsustainable and may likely lead to irreversible consequences for people. Future generations may be reciting the famous proverb differently: “For want of a T-bone steak the biosphere was lost.”

With the focus of the Seventh-day Adventist Church sharply on health this week during a major health conference in Geneva, Switzerland, it is worth remembering that large populations around the world have thrived on vegetarian diets throughout history.

Before 150 years ago, people eating plant-based or meatless diets did so on the basis of religious, ethical, or philosophical values.Since then, scientific evidence has supported the benefits of eating a vegetarian diet.

If large populations around the world chose to eat a vegetarian diet, the harmful emissions contributing to global warming could be greatly reduced.

A recent study conducted by doctors Joan Sabaté and Samuel Soret out of Loma Linda University Health reaches a similar conclusion. The study found that a vegetarian diet is significantly less damaging to the environment than a non-vegetarian diet, and with the added bonus of being healthier.

Global Warming and Our Food Choices

Climate change is a major environmental and public health issue, but it is also a threat to our food supply. Ironically, the food system itself is a significant contributor to global warming. Research shows that our current food system is unsustainable; however, decreasing the demand for animal products would also reduce emissions from livestock production.

Since 1963, there has been a 62 percent increase worldwide in meat consumption.The projected increased size of the world's population and the increase in the appetite for meat are pushing our food systems to unsustainable levels.

Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are the harmful emissions within green house gases that contribute to global warming. The production of food contributes to these emissions. However, emissions from the production of animal products are less sustainable compared to plant-based products.

A diet is sustainable if it has a low impact on the environment, protects the nutritional value of foods, and contributes to healthy life for present and future generations. Plant-based foods use fewer natural resources and are less taxing on the environment. This means that vegetarian diets are more sustainable than diets rich in animal products.

The study out of Loma Linda University Health compared and contrasted the harmful emissions associated with various diets (meat-based, semi-vegetarian, and vegetarian diets) of people across North America and also assessed their mortality rates.

The Research: A Survey of Food

Sabaté and Soret were able to tap into the Adventist Health Study 2, a large-scale study of the nutritional habits and practices of more than 70,000 Seventh-day Adventists throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Participants in the study were given a food questionnaire that listed 210 food items. Each participant was asked to select the frequency they ate the foods listed. Some of the food items included in the questionnaire were fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, oils, dairy, fish, eggs, meat, beverages, and commercially prepared products such as dietary supplements, dry cereals, and vegetarian protein products or vege-meat.

Three dietary patterns emerged from the results of the questionnaire: vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, and non-vegetarians. Participants who rarely or never ate meat were considered vegetarians.Participants who ate meat more than once a month but less than once per week were classified as semi-vegetarians and non-vegetarians consumed meats at least once a week.

More Research: The Life Cycle of Food

To assess the effects of the dietary patterns on global warming, Soret and Sabaté followed the life cycles of various foods.

Each food type was measured for the intensity of green house gases emitted during its production. Plant foods were measured from farm to wholesaler; soy-based vegetarian meat and tofu were measured from farm to factory; dairy and other processed products were measured from farm to the point of purchase; beef, pork, and poultry were measured from farm to the final meat producer; and hamburger meat was measured from farm to wholesaler.

The life cycle assessments were used to determine the annual green house gas emissions contributed by each dietary pattern.

What Soret and Sabaté found was astounding. The emissions produced by a vegetarian diet contributed roughly one third less than non-vegetarian diets. Even semi-vegetarian diets contributed significantly less than non-vegetarians.On top of the diets effect on the environment, the study showed that non-vegetarians are 20 percent more likely to die sooner than vegetarians or semi-vegetarians.

The findings show that choosing to eat plant-based foods instead of meat supports reductions in harmful green house gas emissions.Even reducing the amount of meat consumed to that of a semi-vegetarian diet decreases harm to the environment and increases health.

Forks Above Knives

Animal waste has become a public health problem and environmental hazard. Annually, 7 billion livestock in the U.S. meat industry generate 1.4 billion tons of waste.That translates into roughly 5 tons of waste for every U.S. citizen. Imagine piles of waste roughly the size and mass of an adult elephant next to every person in the country. Now imagine the animal waste leaking into our food and water supplies. This represents a direct threat to human health.

A vegetarian diet in comparison to a meat-based diet is more sustainable because it requires fewer natural resources and is less taxing on the environment. Policy changes leading to the adoption of plant-based diets at the global level will make the most of the food supply, health, environmental and social justice outcomes for the world’s population.

At an individual level, a change of the magnitude suggested above can be daunting.

As the old proverb goes, “For want of a nail the kingdom was lost.” The smallest of actions sometimes lead to the direst of consequences. By making the choice to eat a vegetarian diet, you are not only improving your health but also reducing the demand for animal products. On the other hand, seemingly insignificant choices by individuals can lead to world-changing results.

Let's make sure future generations never recite, “For want of a T-bone steak the biosphere was lost.”


Related link

News article in Adventist Review: "Vegetarian Diet Is Effective Tool Against Climate Change, Study Finds"

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