This article originally appeared in the World Economic Forum’s Agenda; Published on 18 Dec, 2018
There was a time when vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based diets in the Western world were part of a small subculture. It was considered the domain of hippies and activists, rather than large numbers of the population.
Depending on the situation, vegetarians and vegans were met with either acceptance, tolerance, or hostility when they divulged their dietary preferences. Not so much anymore. An increasing number of consumers have begun to realize the positive impact a plant-based diet has, not only on health, but also many other aspects of life.
Plant-based diets have gone mainstream. From prominent public figures like Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Gates, to large corporations like WeWorks, there is growing support for the movement to eat more plant-based foods.
Even Beyoncé and JayZ have become fans of the vegan lifestyle and have invested in a vegan food company started by their personal trainer. Nestlé, the largest food company in the world, predicts that plant-based foods will continue to grow.
For some, this is a lifestyle. For me, it has been my way of life. I’m a lifelong vegetarian. I was born into a vegetarian family and have never tried meat. When I founded my company 20 years ago, one of the first policies I put in place was that we will never pay for anything that contributes to killing. It is a philosophy that we actively promote internally to our employees, though by no means is anyone forced to convert to vegetarianism.
From promotion of animal welfare to increased sustainability, there are countless benefits to a plant-based lifestyle. It is not simply a diet, it is also a path to better health and more importantly, positive environmental impact.
On an even broader scale, a plant-based economic approach could save billions of dollars for countries around the world. Evidence shows that people can be healthy and thrive without eating or using animal products.
The understanding that the use of animals to source food, clothing, or any other purpose is unnecessary for our health and wellbeing can build a case for the potential savings a plant-based economy could provide.
Decades of research has shown that the mediterranean diet is perhaps one of the healthiest in the world. It is abundant in primarily plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and olive oil, and places an emphasis on fresh, colourful eating and shuns heavily processed ingredients.
The foods in a typical Mediterranean diet help lower inflammation in your body, improve blood vessel function and reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes. All of these benefits serve to keep your ticker ticking and your mind sharp.
Dietary professionals now agree that meat alternatives – such as nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and tofu – can provide valuable and affordable sources of protein and other nutrients otherwise found in meats.
These diets are safe for all stages in a person’s life, including pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. Research continually confirms that a balanced plant-based diet can provide all of the nutrients needed for good health.
The vast majority of vegans and vegetarians in these studies meet the recommended daily amount of protein as well. Contrary to common belief, plant-based diets can contain just as much or more iron than diets containing meat.
Not only are animal products unnecessary for optimum health, but a growing number of nutritionists and health professionals are acknowledging that animal products are harmful to health.
Studies on diet repeatedly show that BMI and obesity rates are lowest for people who eat a plant-based diet. Research also shows that a healthy, plant-based diet helps reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, and diabetes – some of the top killers in many western countries.
When I was young, I asked my mother once why we didn’t eat meat like my classmates at school. She asked me if I remember what it felt like when I cut my hand a few days previously. I remembered bleeding and being in excruciating pain. She said: “Now imagine what an animal feels when it is being cut up so that someone can eat it.” That was too horrifying to imagine.
We have come to the point in our shared human experience where, for the vast majority of people living in the world today, eating meat is no longer an important component of survival. We have evolved to a place where we no longer need to defend ourselves from animals to survive either.
Therefore, given our level of sophistication and control over our world, eating living creatures has become a choice rather than a necessity.
Animals are sentient beings like us, with their own needs, desires, and interests. We now know that, like us, they can experience a wide range of sensations and emotions such as joy, pain, pleasure, fear, hunger, sorrow, boredom, frustration, or contentment. They are conscious and aware of the world around them; because of this fact, self-preservation is important to animals. Their lives are valuable, and they are not simply here as resources or tools for human use.
All use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation involves utilizing animals against their will, creating suffering, and in most cases, death. Let’s not have any more pain in the world. There’s enough already.
While the health and ethical benefits are undeniable, switching to a plant-based diet is healthy for the environment as well.
New research suggests that switching to a plant-based diet can reduce your personal environmental footprint more than switching to a hybrid car. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that around 30% of land on earth that is not covered by ice is either directly or indirectly used in the production of livestock.
In the Amazon, for example, almost 70% of forest land has been converted to space that is primarily used as cattle pastureland. Over-grazing has resulted in the loss of biodiversity and the productive capacity of ecosystems, particularly in arid regions.
A two-volume report titled ‘Livestock in a Changing Landscape’ came to these key conclusions:
1. More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one quarter of the Earth’s land.
2. Production of animal feed consumes about one third of Earth’s total arable land.
3. The animal agriculture industry, which includes feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (the beef, pork and poultry industries emit large amounts of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases).
According to a recent study on the impact plant-based meat substitutes have on the environment, every instance of plant-based meat alternatives produced substantially lower emissions than actual meat. Specifically, these meat alternatives created ten times less greenhouse gas emissions than that produced by similar meat-based products.
This switch reduces the number of resources required since there are no animals that need to be fed, hydrated and cleaned up after. Livestock production, on the other hand, leads to unsustainable water use. The animal agriculture industry demands high water usage, often depleting local supplies amidst growing concerns of climate change and ever-shrinking freshwater resources.
Producing Food for Food?
Cutting down on the production of meat and other animal products does more than just support the fight to conserve our planet and advocate for a more sustainable and ethical way of life through environmental vegetarianism.
By moving away from the production of animal products, you not only significantly reduce negative effects on the environment and global warming, but you also play a role in improving the lives of people around the world – you become part of the solution.
Animal agriculture has far-reaching impacts on people throughout the world, especially the powerless and the poor. According to the World Health Organization, every year over 20 million people will die as a result of malnutrition, and approximately one billion people suffer from chronic hunger.
Most of the food that is currently fed to animals could instead be used to directly feed the world’s hungry. What we often fail to realize is that the crops required to sustain livestock are fuel for a project that creates food to supplement the creation of more food.
Instead of supplying the grains yielded from the crops to human beings in desperate need of it and those affected by the world food crisis, those crops are fed to livestock, exacerbating the pace of the current climate change crisis.
It takes an average of four pounds of grain and other plant protein to produce just one-half pound of beef. Eighty percent of starving children live in countries that actually have food surpluses; this is because the extra grains produced are fed to livestock instead of people.
The good news is that there are not only environmental and humanitarian benefits to a plant-based agricultural system, but an economic benefit as well. The additional food that would be produced as a result of a shift to a vegan diet in the US alone could feed 350 million additional people.
The value of this food surplus would also offset the loss from the decrease in livestock production. Economic studies show that animal agriculture in a majority of western economies accounts for less than 2% GDP. Some studies in the US suggest a potential reduction in GDP of about 1% but this would be offset by growth in other plant-based markets.
In fact, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), research showed that if people continue to follow mainstream, animal-based dietary trends rather than shifting to a balanced plant-based diet, it could cost the US between $197 billion and $289 billion per year. The findings also determined that the global economy stands to lose up to $1.6 trillion by 2050.
The US stands to save more than any other nation by switching to a plant-based economy because of its high per-capita healthcare costs. If Americans simply followed recommended guidelines for healthy eating, according to the PNAS study, the US could save $180 billion in healthcare costs, and $250 billion if it switched to a plant-based economy. These are only monetary figures and don’t even take into account the estimated 320,000 lives saved per year as a result of reduced cases of chronic diseases and obesity.
According to one study by the Plant Based Foods Association, economic activity in the US’s plant-based foods industry alone amounts to sales of approximately $13.7 billion a year. At current growth rates, the plant-based food industry is predicted to generate $13.3 billion in tax revenues over the next 10 years. Sales of plant-based foods in the United States is increasing by an average of 8% per year.
All of this is promising news for advocates of a plant-based lifestyle, and the wave of research touting the multiple benefits of making the switch continues to grow. Such a switch offers many pragmatic reasons for governments to implement programmes that incentivize the agriculture industry to make necessary changes.
The research helps confirm that, on multiple levels, plant-based economies will improve the overall health and wellness of people around the world by reducing hunger in developing countries and reducing chronic diseases in the west.
All the while, planet Earth will get a bit of a break from the damage created by products based on the livestock industry. In the end, even if doing the right thing isn’t enough of a motivating factor to consider the benefits of a plant-based economy, at least the power of the almighty dollar is.
|VIJAY ESWARAN: Executive Chairman, QI Group
Vijay Eswaran is a prominent Asian entrepreneur, author and thought leader. More importantly he is a life-long vegetarian and a staunch advocate of plant-based diets as the only way to help save the planet. His company, the QI Group, is completely meat-free and has banned the use of single-use plastic in all of its offices worldwide. You can read his insights on business, leadership, sustainability and even spirituality on his website.