A table filled with a variety of vegan foods, including organic fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts. fcafotodigital / E+ / Getty Images
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An analysis of diets and farms conducted by the Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) project at the University of Oxford found that vegan diets have a major reduction in environmental impacts, from land and water use to emissions and pollution.
The study, published in the journal natural food, analyzed the diets of 55,504 people and reviewed 38,000 farms based in 119 countries. What they found was that no matter where and how food is produced, animal-based diets had greater environmental impacts than the diets of people who consumed fewer or no animal products.
Vegan diets had about 75% less emissions and land use compared to meat-intensive diets, defined as more than 100 grams of meat consumed per day. Vegan diets also used almost 54% less water than meat-rich diets and about 73% less water pollution from runoff. Plant-based diets also had less impact on biodiversity.
“Our food choices have a big impact on the planet,” Peter Scarborough, lead author of the study and professor at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences in Oxford, said in a press release. “Reducing the amount of meat and dairy in your diet can make a big difference in your food footprint.”
Overall, people following a vegan diet had about a third of the environmental impact of people with high meat consumption. People who ate low amounts of meat (less than 50 grams of meat per day) had about 30% less impact in different categories compared to those who consumed 100 grams of meat or more per day.
“Even in the ‘worst-case scenarios’ where most food consumed on a low-meat diet is produced by high environmental impact methods and most food consumed on a high-meat diet is produced by low-impact methods, low-meat diets still have a significantly lower environmental impact,” Scarborough explained.
The negative environmental impacts of growing food and raising livestock are well known. A separate study published in 2021 found that food system emissions accounted for approximately 34% of total global emissions as of 2015, and agriculture represents more than 70% fresh water consumptionreported a 2023 study.
But the recent analysis of various diets is one of the most comprehensive of its kind, showing that eating less meat can lead to drastic reductions in environmental impacts.
“This study represents the most comprehensive attempt to link food consumption data with data on the environmental impacts of food production,” said University of Reading professor Richard Tiffin. as reported by The Guardian. “Encouraging heavy meat eaters to reduce their meat consumption and encouraging vegetarians to go vegan should lead to reduced emissions. However, it is difficult to justify changes in the diet of moderate omnivores based on these results, other than switching to an all-vegan diet.
According to the study, dietary changes will be needed to feed more people as the human population continues to grow, while limiting environmental impacts. The authors noted that high-income countries will need to drastically reduce the amount of animal-based foods and beverages they consume to keep environmental impacts within safe limits.