If we all swapped beef burgers and bacon sandwiches for vegetarian alternatives most of the week, we could cut greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector by more than half.

So say the scientists behind a new study published in Nature, who predicted that in 2050, sticking to a plant-based diet, with just one portion of red meat a week, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to food by 56%.

The report found that sticking to a “flexitarian diet” was one of three ways – alongside improvements in technologies and management, and reductions in food loss and waste – we could limit the food system’s impact on climate change, water scarcity and pollution in the coming decades.

For their research, the scientists outlined the flexitarian diet as one that included:

  • At least 500g per day of fruits and vegetables of different colours and groups (the composition of which is determined by regional preferences)
  • At least 100g per day of plant-based protein sources (legumes, soybeans and nuts) At least 100g per day of plant-based protein sources (legumes, soybeans and nuts)
  • Modest amounts of animal-based proteins, such as poultry, fish, milk and eggs
  • Limited amounts of red meat (one portion per week), refined sugar (less than 5% of total energy), vegetable oils that are high in saturated fat (in particular palm oil) and starchy foods with a relatively high glycaemic index

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the greenhouse gases from livestock account for 15% of the world's total emissions. Of these, cattle (raised for both beef and milk) are the biggest offenders, accounting for 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions.

The global meat market is currently worth around $90 billion, but it’s costing us far more in health terms – and could even be killing us.

According to new estimates from the University of Oxford, by 2020 consumption of red and processed meat will be responsible for 2.4 million deaths and $285 billion in costs related to healthcare.

If taxes on processed meat were introduced, the researchers said consumption would drop by around two portions per week in high-income countries and by 16% globally.

How taxes to increase the price of meat might affect consumption.
Image: PLOS One

Going green

David Yeung, co-founder and CEO of Green Monday and one of the World Economic Forum’s Social Entrepreneurs of 2018, is behind a wave of people opting to eat less meat.

Since he launched the social venture in Hong Kong in 2012, more than 1.6 million people have adopted a flexitarian diet at least one day a week – to improve their health and reduce their carbon footprint.

In November 2018, Yeung and his team launched Green Monday in Singapore, with plans to roll it out to other countries in South East Asia next year.

Image: greenmonday.david on Instagram

“Flexitarianism, reducetarianism or Green Monday is the same idea,” he says. “It is important that we embrace people who attempt a plant-based diet even for one meal each week.”

The meat substitutes industry is big business. Globally, it’s predicted to be worth around $5.8 billion by 2020, up from an estimated $4.3 billion in 2018.

Yeung – who also runs the cafe chain Green Common and has created a vegetarian-inspired menu that’s used in 2,000 schools and company cafeterias in more than 30 countries, including his alma mater Columbia University – says establishing healthier eating patterns can take time.

“Once the door is open and they get to experience for themselves the green side of the culinary universe, they will take their plant-based routine to the next level at their own pace.

“Just like running a marathon, not everyone can turn from never running to completing a full marathon overnight. That’s why they have 10K and half-marathon.”

Planting a flag for flexitarianism: Wolf Burgers’ Beyond Curry Burger.
Image: Green Monday

But he warns against excessive pressure on people to cut out meat entirely.

“If we make it an all-or-nothing binary situation, most people may simply decide to take a pass due to their own inertia or their unaccommodating social or family environment.”