Eating less meat is better for animal welfare and environmental health •


The food we choose to eat every day impacts not only our health, but also the environment and the lives of countless animals. Each EU citizen consumes an average of 950 kilograms of food and drink annually, which is comparable to the weight of a small car. Globally, food production has many potential consequences for the world in which we live.

Although many studies present details on the nutritional and health impacts of different foods, research relating to the environmental and animal impacts of different diets is less common. A One Health approach aims to achieve optimal health outcomes for humans, animals and the environment, but studies that apply this perspective to nutrition issues are still rare, said Juliana Paris of the Development Research Center (ZEF) at University of Bonn, Germany,

To investigate, Paris and her colleagues compared the pros and cons of different diets based on their impacts on humans, animals and the environment. The researchers first established a benchmark diet by sampling selected products from supermarkets in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

“We then compared this reference diet to three different scenarios: a switch according to the recommendations of the German Nutrition Society (DGE), a switch to a Mediterranean diet with more fish and seafood, and a switch to a vegan diet,” Paris explained. .

In each of these three scenarios, the foods were chosen to differ as little as possible from the reference diet. “This means, for example, that in the Mediterranean version, we have increased the proportion of fish and seafood, vegetables and cereal products,” Paris said.

Additionally, the overall product selection contained the same nutrients in similar amounts as before. This gave the researchers a food basket for each scenario, which they then analyzed in more detail.

“To do this, we relied on various databases,” said Dr Neus Escobar of the Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, who supervised the work. “They allowed us, for example, to estimate the impact of each diet on certain environmental aspects – such as the amount of greenhouse gases produced during their production or water consumption. We took a similar approach to evaluating the impact of each diet on health. Red meat, for example, is known to increase the risk of certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases.

The researchers assessed each diet’s impact on animal welfare using indicators such as the number of animals that die to meet human food needs and the conditions in which the animals are kept. “But we also used the number of neurons or the size of the brain relative to the body to estimate how much the respective animals actually suffer when used,” Paris explained.

The results indicated that while the three different dietary scenarios would represent an improvement over the original reference diet, in terms of environmental sustainability, all had drawbacks from a One Health perspective.

The vegan diet has had the best results in many areas, but producing vegan food involves increased water consumption. “Plus, vegans need to take certain nutrients separately, like vitamin B12, vitamin D, and even calcium,” Paris says. This indicates that a vegan diet may not be ideal from a human health perspective.

The Mediterranean diet (although beneficial from a health perspective) also leads to increased water requirements in the production of nuts and vegetables. In addition, replacing red meat with fish has negative impacts on animal welfare. Since fish and seafood are much smaller than, say, cows or pigs, many more animals are killed to meet human protein requirements.

“So it pays to meet less of your overall animal-based protein needs,” Neus Escobar points out. “In addition, many people today have a diet that is clearly too rich. If they reduced the amount of food they ate to what they really needed, it could have additional positive effects.

The study concludes that, if the DGE’s dietary recommendations go in the right direction, the other two options are better in terms of human health. When it comes to animal welfare, data shows that if you deprive yourself of meat and instead put whole grains, vegetables and fruit on your plate, you will have less impact on animals that share our planet. A diet that relies less on animal protein will be better for your health and will also be less harmful to animals and the environment.

The research is published in the journal Total Environmental Science.

Through Alison Bosman, Personal editor


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