• Report says eating more fruits and vegetables and less meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
• Global mortality could decline by as much as 10 percent.
Millions of lives and trillions of dollars could be saved if people the world over ate more fruits and vegetables and less red meat, according to a new study. Such a shift in global eating patterns would also reduce the planetary burden of greenhouse gas emissions and help halt the worst effects of climate change.
The report, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argues that food-related emissions could fall between 29 and 70 percent by 2050 were the world's population to adhere to certain dietary guidelines established by global health agencies. Global mortality could drop by as much as 10 percent -- preventing as many as 8.1 million deaths per year -- and between $1 trillion and $31 trillion could be saved.
If those estimates seem to range pretty widely, it's for a good reason. Marco Springmann, a research fellow at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the study's co-author, said the strikingly different estimates reflect a number of different scenarios -- for example, a scenario where people simply eat less meat and more produce, versus scenarios where everyone in the world goes vegetarian or vegan. While the latter cases may seem extreme, even a more modest change could dramatically aid humanity, according to the research.
"The size of the projected benefits, even taking into account all of the caveats about the unavoidable sources of uncertainty in our work, should encourage researchers and policy makers to act to improve consumption patterns," the paper reads.
Over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, and up to 80 percent of that comes from resource-intensive livestock.
Man-made carbon emissions are the principal force driving climate change and its scourge of world-changing effects, including droughts, rising sea levels and human health crises. Emissions have leveled off in the past two years, but global temperatures are still set to exceed a temperature threshold that scientists say humanity must avoid to stave off the worst consequences.
Under one scenario proposed by the paper, the combined people of Earth would need to eat 25 percent more fruits and vegetables and 56 percent less red meat in order to save 5.1 million lives per year and achieve a 29 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Springmann pointed out that those figures are worldwide, and that in practice, different parts of the world would have to take different approaches. For example, while global fruit and vegetable consumption would have to go up by 25 percent, people in sub-Saharan Africa would have to begin eating 190 percent more produce. And while red meat consumption worldwide would have to drop by 56 percent, that figure would be more like 78 percent in high-income Western countries like the U.S.
If the planet were to go completely vegan, according to the report, it could prevent as many as 8.1 million deaths a year.
The authors of the report call on the world's governments to encourage new eating habits. They also suggest that people use the data as a renewed call to purchase healthier food. But in places like America where corn remains king, major changes of the kind recommended in the report would require some substantial policy restructuring.
"Government sets the framework and sets the market in which we operate," Springmann said. "If the government decided to prize food based on greenhouse gas incentives, that would make a huge impact."