Denmark recently announced a startling change in direction. In 2021, the Danish Council on Climate Change realized that their country was heading towards failure to meet its 2030 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 70% of 1990 levels. Consequently, in October 2023, the country published their innovative roadmap towards the goal of transitioning Denmark’s food system towards a more plant-based focus, in line with their Official Dietary Guidelines (1). The plan contains measures directed at every part of the food supply chain from the producers to the consumers.
According to recent data from the United Nations, 31% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions originate from animal agriculture (2,3). The Danish government is calling their plant-based initiative a necessary alteration to fight climate change. They noted that research has repeatedly illustrated that switching to plant-based food systems has huge environmental benefits.
In July 2023, results of a study were published which looked at the impact of the food we eat on environmental outcomes (4). Over 55,000 participants were placed into one of six different groups according to their food intake: vegan, vegetarian, fish-eaters and low-, medium-, and high-meat eaters. The investigators then linked their dietary data to five measures: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution and biodiversity loss. In addition, how and where a food was produced was factored in because different methods used in growing the foods sourced from plants result in distinct environmental influences. Results revealed the following;
- Vegans (people eating solely whole food plant-based) had 30% of the adverse environmental impact of those eating any level of meat
- Vegans in the study had 25% of the undesirable impact on greenhouse gas emissions of those from high-meat eaters
- Vegans had 25% of the harmful dietary impact on land use, 46% on water use, 27% on water pollution and 34% on biodiversity when compared to that from meat-eaters
- Low meat-eaters had 70% of the damaging impact on the environment of that from high meat-eaters
- Meat and dairy have from 3 to 100 times the negative environmental impact of plant-based foods
- The least sustainable vegan diet was still more environmentally friendly than the most sustainable meat-eater’s diet
Reasons for the greater negative environmental effects from eaters of animal-based foods are many. Some causes discussed in this study are increased deforestation and sequestering of carbon in trees from the higher land use required for the production of food animals; intensified use of fertilizers to grow the plants that feed the animals being produced for use as food; and the gases emitted by food animals themselves.
An investigation published in 2022 examined the possible result on greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and on the sequestering of carbon by considering what would happen if the 54 high-income nations of the world replaced their consumption of high amounts of animal-based foods with plant-based foods and restored the spared land to its original natural vegetation. Results showed that greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production could be reduced by 61% and carbon sequestering could increase by as much as 98.3 GtCO2 equivalents. (GtCO2 means gigatons of carbon dioxide so this amount is 98.3 billion metric tons, equal to approximately 14 years of current global agricultural emissions.) Researchers note that to achieve this double climate dividend, new policies for land, food, climate and public health would need to be jointly developed. (5)
But plant-based eating patterns go beyond environmental gains for countries.
Analysis from the Department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen showed that Denmark could save from 12 billion kroner to up to 38 billion kroner in healthcare costs and labour-productivity costs as well as counteract 1000 premature deaths every year from decreasing animal-sourced food consumption in their population (6). The benefits come from lower healthcare costs, more years in the labour market and the value of improved quality of life. There is an enormous quantity of evidence available showing that consuming more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods helps to prevent and alleviate lifestyle diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and some cancers.
A study from 2018 looked into the potential health and economic effects of plant-based food patterns in Belgium and the United Kingdom (7). It measured both economic gains for society and the increase in quality-adjusted life years (QALY) for a population that eats more plant-based. This research included Mediterranean-type diets and diets containing soy.
NOTE: QALY combines the length of life and the quality of life into one measure and as such quantifies the number of years lived in good health.
Results showed that…
- Plant-based dietary patterns such as Mediterranean type diets and diets containing soy decrease the risk for lifestyle diseases such as type-2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.
- If 10% of the total population committed to high adherence to a Mediterranean-type diet, potential cost savings to society in Belgium were estimated to be 1.55 billion euros over 20 years and, in the UK, 7.53 billion pounds over 20 years.
- If 10% of the total population committed to high adherence to a diet that contains soy, potential cost savings to society in Belgium were estimated to be 1.9 billion euros over 20 years and, in the UK, 10.91 billion pounds over 20 years.
Imagine what these results would look like if a higher percentage of these populations made the transition to eating more plant-based foods.
The Danish government has now openly recognized that switching to more plant-based food production is crucial for meeting its climate goals. Additionally, Switzerland recently launched a new climate change strategy focused on reducing the country’s meat consumption (8) and Germany introduced a National Nutrition Strategy in 2022 that included increasing plant-based food as one of its central objectives (9). We can only hope that these countries are just the first of many to set their sights on plant-based foods and the reduction of animal agriculture to avert the looming climate catastrophe.
4 Scarborough, P., Clark, M., Cobiac, L. et al. Vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters in the UK show discrepant environmental impacts. Nat Food, 2023; 4:565–574. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-023-00795-w
5 Sun, Z., Scherer, L., Tukker, A. et al. Dietary change in high-income nations alone can lead to substantial double climate dividend. Nat Food . 2022;3:29–37. Doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00431-5.
7 Schepers, J., Annemans, L. The potential health and economic effects of plant-based food patterns in Belgium and the United Kingdom. Nutrition. 2018; 28: 24-32. Doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2017.11.028.