On 2nd March the BBC World Service and Wellcome Collection hosted a panel discussion exploring whether vegetarianism is a sustainable option globally. The event was recorded in front of a live audience and will be broadcast on the World Service in April.
Pete Scarborough, from the Nuffield Department of Health addressed the question from an epidemiologist’s viewpoint and was joined on the panel by Naomi Sykes an archaeologist from the University of Nottingham, Matthew Cole a sociologist from the Open University and Jimmy Smith, the Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute. The panel was chaired by Claudia Hammond and Tim Cockerill.
Pete discussed the health and environmental impacts of meat consumption based on work that he and colleagues in the Centre on Population Approaches for Non Communicable Disease Prevention and the Cancer Epidemiology Unit have conducted over the last five years.
He outlined how globally, the food system is responsible for between 20% and 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these emissions happen before food leaves the farm and animal-based foods have far higher greenhouse gas footprints than plant-based foods. Beef and lamb have the largest impact, due to methane emissions associated with ruminants and inefficiencies involved in growing crops for animal feed that could be used for human consumption (it is estimated that 40% of global agriculture is not directly for human consumption).
A world-wide shift towards healthy, lower meat diets could reduce food-related global greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70%. However, Pete cautioned that while interventions aimed at encouraging low meat diets such as the introduction of a carbon tax could offer health benefits in developed nations, they could also result in negative health consequences from under-nutrition for poorer groups in developing countries.
Forthcoming work at the Nuffield Department of Population Health funded by the Wellcome Trust will model the impact of changes in consumption of animal-based foods on different socio-economic groups.