Adopting a plant-based diet is the best thing you can do for the environment, according to a report from a UN-backed think tank. The report, from policy institute Chatham House, outlines three “levers” for easing pressure on land use and creating more sustainable food systems. The first and most urgent, the report asserts, is the need to “change dietary patterns to reduce food demand and encourage more plant-based diets.”

One of the key factors driving the recommendation to shift to more plant-based diets, for people of all nations, is the enormous carbon footprint of animal agriculture, and by contrast, the lighter impact that plant-based crops produce. "The largest differences occur between animal-sourced and plant-sourced foods, with the latter having smaller footprints; in some cases, substantially smaller,” the report concludes. Land use, emissions, water use, and biodiversity all were considered and it is undebatable that raising animals for food is a major contributor to global environmental degradation. In fact, the global food system is responsible for more greenhouse emissions than any other industry, the report found.

Eating Plant-Based for the Planet is Second Only to Plant-Based for Health

Even though more people than ever are adopting a plant-based diet and choosing meat alternatives and non-dairy milk and cheese, the demand for animal products is still growing as the global population grows. To meet that demand, factory farming, also referred to as “intensive” farming, has expanded. These assembly-line, high-efficiency intensive farming operations wreak havoc on the environment, the report finds. In the US, factory farms are where 99% of farmed animals live and it is the primary source of where your meat and dairy comes from. Yet environmentally, factory farming is an unsustainable system that if not changed, will be catastrophic to the environment.

A recent survey found that while the number one reason Americans as eating more plant-based foods is for their health, concern over the environment is the second reason, and it's growing, especially among younger consumers. In the past two years, the shift toward eating plant-based "for the environment" has risen 17 percent to 48 percent of people saying that is their focus. Another poll found that 54 percent of Millennials are eating more plant-based and call themselves flexitarians, since they are cutting back on meat and dairy, but have not fully committed to ditching those foods altogether.

Disease prevention is the other reason to adopt a plant-based diet, the report states

Beyond the environment, the UN-backed report also highlights the other public good that would result from reducing our reliance on animal-based foods, including improved dietary quality and reduced incidence of diet-related disease associated with overconsumption of red and processed meat such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Pandemic risk could also be “significantly lowered by reducing animal farming,” the report says. The researchers point out that the majority of infectious diseases that have caused epidemics have come from animals. The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the high risks concentrated in certain food production supply chains, as well as the poor labor standards in food-processing plants that have accelerated disease spread amongst workers.

In addition to the first lever—the adoption of more plant-based foods and reliance on animal-based products—the two others are the need to protect and set aside land for nature, and shift to more sustainable farming methods. All three of these levers are needed for food system redesign to succeed and to ultimately save our planet.

So if you care about the planet, the type of food you eat matters. So if you're driving a Prius, or cutting down on single-use plastic, and shopping from sustainable fashion companies, this report recommends you also eat food from plant sources.

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