A Future-proof Food System is Plant-based

novembre 25, 2020

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The way we eat – especially in the Global North – harms human and planetary health. Diseases caused by animal-based diets are on the rise, while 690 million people worldwide suffer from hunger.[1] The solution to a healthier, more climate-friendly, and resilient food system are plant-based diets.

The global population has doubled over the last 50 years and meat production has more than tripled.[2] The intensive animal farming associated with this growth has led to a complex set of interrelated problems. Meat and dairy-based diets in the Global North threaten global food security, the climate, biodiversity, global health, and raise fundamental questions of justice.

While the world’s population is expected to increase by 30 percent by 2050, forecasts indicate that without a shift in policies meat consumption will rise by 70 percent over the same period.[3] Up to now, there has been little political action despite the recommendations from leading scientists, UN agencies, and international organizations to transform to a plant-based food system.[4]

Meat Eats Land and Heats the Climate

The production of meat and dairy products requires more land than any other consumer good. While the industrial livestock sector uses pasture and arable land that accounts for 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land,[5] meat and dairy only contribute to 17 percent of the necessary caloric intake of humans.[6] The growing global demand for animal-based diets increasingly threatens food security. Instead of feeding humans directly, more than 80 percent of all soybeans and half of the world’s grains are fed to livestock.[7] The production of fodder crops is based on monocultures that depend on fossil fuels, and leads to the damage of fertile soils, diminishing biodiversity, and –  in turn – massively reduced crop yields in the long term.

Intensive animal farming is also a major cause of climate change. Around 70 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from food production come from the industrial-livestock sector.[8] A major contributor is slash-and-burn agriculture of the livestock-sector in tropical forests, destroying crucial natural carbon sinks. Adopting a plant-based diet globally would thus cut agricultural GHG emissions by up to 70 percent.[9]

Meat Consumption Affects Global Health

The current food system puts the planetary system at risk and threatens human health. The consumption of red and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.[10] A typical plant-based diet, in contrast, is associated with many health benefits because of its higher content of fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, magnesium, and less saturated fat content.[11] Moreover, the World Health Organization labeled the excessive use of antibiotics in animal farming, leading to antimicrobial resistance, as a “global health emergency”. [12] Antibiotic resistance threatens our ability to treat common infections and, according to estimates, the number of deaths caused by it will rise to over ten million people per year by 2050.[13]

Transition to a Plant-based Food System

Plant-based diets decrease the risks of life-threatening diseases and reduce the environmental impact of food production. A plant-based food system should therefore be at the heart of upcoming international governmental discussions like the UN Food System Summit to establish new policies, marking the end of our resource-intensive food system. For the transition on a global scale, major policy changes are needed. 

Necessary policy changes include ending disproportionately large subsidies for fodder crop production. Currently, a substantial proportion of the 700 billion USD that go to agricultural subsidies per year are linked to the livestock sector.[14] Governments from the Global North should instead start taxing animal farming to ensure that the price of different foods reflects real costs in terms of use of natural resources and externalities.[15] The price of the average burger, for example, is currently 4.50 USD, whereas the real cost of production – including offsetting environmental and health system cost implications – is nearly three times that price, at approximately 12 USD.[16] The true environmental and health costs of animal products are not paid by their consumers but by society as a whole and – due to the impact on the planet’s climate and the environment – disproportionally by the people in the Global South and future generations.

The implementation of high standards of animal welfare and a ban on the routine use of antibiotics are likewise imperative. These changes will lead to the improvement of animal health, food quality, and – as a result – human health, and will support biodiversity preservation.

Despite the urgency to reduce meat consumption, only a small minority of consumers are aware of the impact of their diet. Clear health and education policies on the positive impact of a plant-based food system are needed to increase consumer awareness and foster behavioral change.

Revaluing naturally plant-rich traditional cuisines is another essential step towards a global transition to a more sustainable and equitable future. A full transformation to a more sustainable and resilient food system will be achieved when policy makers, informed by the research and analysis of global health and environment experts, embark on a comprehensive paradigm-shift toward a plant-based global food system.


Image by Chanel Mason

[1] “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2020, accessed July 13, 2020, http://www.fao.org/3/ca9692en/online/ca9692en.html#.

[2] Elisabeth Schmidt-Landenberger, “Fleischatlas 2018. Daten und Fakten über Tiere als Nahrungsmittel,” Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland and Le Monde Diplomatique, 2018, https://www.bund.net/fileadmin/user_upload_bund/publikationen/massentierhaltung/massentierhaltung_fleischatlas_2018.pdf.

[3] “Major gains in efficiency of livestock systems needed,” FAO, 2011, accessed July 13, 2020, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/116937/icode/.

[4] Almut Arneth, et al., “Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems,” IPCC, 2019, https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/.

[5] “Animal production,” FAO, 2020, accessed July 13, 2020, http://www.fao.org/animal-production/en/.

[6] Elisabeth Schmidt-Landenberger, “Fleischatlas”, 2018.

[7] “Hunger im Überfluss,” Weltagrarbericht, accessed June 18, 2020, https://www.weltagrarbericht.de/themen-des-weltagrarberichts/hunger-im-ueberfluss.html.

[8] Steffen Noleppa, “Klimawandel auf dem Teller,” WWF Germany, 2012, accessed June 18, 2020, https://www.wwf.de/fileadmin/fm-wwf/Publikationen-PDF/Klimawandel_auf_dem_Teller.pdf.

[9] Marco Springmann, et al., “Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change,” 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, https://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.

[10] Evelyne Battaglia Richi, et al., “Health Risks Associated With Meat Consumption: A Review of Epidemiological Studies,” Int J Vitam Nutr Res, 2015: 85, https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/10.1024/0300-9831/a000224.

[11] Winston J. Craig, “Health effects of vegan diets,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N.

[12] “The world is running out of antibiotics, WHO report confirms,” WHO, 2017, https://www.who.int/news/item/20-09-2017-the-world-is-running-out-of-antibiotics-who-report-confirms.

[13] Jim O’Neill, “Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling a crisis for the health and wealth of nations,” Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, HM Government and Wellcome Trust, 2014, accessed July 14, 2020, https://amr-review.org/sites/default/files/AMR%20Review%20Paper%20-%20Tackling%20a%20crisis%20for%20the%20health%20and%20wealth%20of%20nations_1.pdf.

[14] “Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use,” The Global Consultation Report of the Food and Land Use Coalition, The Food and Land Use Coalition, 2019, accessed August 28, 2020, https://www.foodandlandusecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FOLU-GrowingBetter-GlobalReport.pdf.

[15] “Farm to Fork Strategy. For a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system,” European Commission, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/safety/docs/f2f_action-plan_2020_strategy-info_en.pdf.

[16] David Robinson Simon, “How Much Does Meat Actually Cost?,” Meatonomics, accessed August 28, 2020, https://meatonomics.com

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Laura Reiner

Laura holds a master's degree in International Law from SOAS, University of London and a master's degree in Political Science. Having specialised in political ecology, her research interests include world food policies, focusing on global justice, gender, and biodiversity. She is working as an advisor for international politics for the Green Party in the German Bundestag.