When the world’s vegetarians find themselves the subject of dinner-table cross-examinations after turning down a helping of grandma’s chicken, they have plenty of arguments for not eating meat at their disposal. Many of these are well known, such as the desire to reduce animal suffering, benefit the environment, or lead a healthier life.
Add to that list an economic case. In a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Marco Springmann and his colleagues at the University of Oxford conservatively estimate that if people continue to follow current trends of meat consumption, rather than shifting to a more balanced or plant-based diet, it could cost the U.S. between $197 billion and $289 billion each year—and the global economy up to $1.6 trillion—by 2050.
“It's always hard to really get your head around what it means if you avoid climate change to [a certain] degree, or have one less person dying from diet-related diseases,” said Springmann, a postdoctoral researcher with The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. “We wanted to illustrate the scale of those benefits.”
Springmann and his team imagined several potential dietary scenarios in 2050, comparing health-care and climate-related costs if the world keeps up its current meat-heavy diet, versus shifting to a diet that meets standard global dietary guidelines. For many regions of the world, this shift would mean drastically cutting meat consumption and eating more fruits and vegetables. Springmann also calculated the hypothetical costs of a world of vegetarians (a diet with no meat), and vegans (no eggs, dairy, or animal products whatsoever).
The researchers calculated the direct health-care costs of a meat-heavy diet (associated with the treatment of diseases such as diabetes or heart disease) and indirect costs resulting from unpaid care from family or friends, and lost work days. To quantify the savings of reducing meat-related greenhouse-gas emissions, they drew on a measurement called “social cost of carbon,” which estimates the value of future damages caused by each additional ton of carbon emissions.
Out of all the world’s countries, the U.S. would save the most by curbing its taste for meat. Due to its very high per-capita health-care costs, the country could save $180 billion if the population ate according to recommended guidelines, and $250 billion if it eschewed animal food products altogether—more than China, or all of the EU countries combined. And this is to say nothing of the number of obesity- and chronic-disease-related deaths that could be averted (at least 320,000 per year), and the accompanying benefits of reducing the level of greenhouse-gas emissions. (Springmann and his team made another estimate, using a somewhat less intuitive measure called “value of a statistical life,” that put the savings from not eating meat in the neighborhood of $2 trillion to $3 trillion in the U.S., and $20 trillion to $30 trillion worldwide.)
Overall, the researchers pointed out that the economic value of health benefits associated with more plant-based diets is comparable with, or exceeds, the value of the environmental benefits.
The authors admit, of course, that the valuation techniques they used are “subject to significant uncertainties.” And achieving the kind of savings they identify would require a massive overhaul of dietary patterns across the globe—the world’s population would need to reduce red-meat consumption by 56 percent, increase fruit and vegetable consumption by 25 percent, and simply consume 15 percent fewer calories overall.
But putting a dollar value on these already well-established impacts is significant: For one, these figures can guide policy. Countries could compare these health and environmental costs when considering the implementation of programs to reduce red-meat consumption or increase fruit and vegetable consumption, Springmann said. The dollar figures could also be used to analyze potential policies, such as new taxes or changes to the regulation of food advertising.
“What lots of health research has shown is that although individuals can obviously make a difference, it's not terribly efficient to appeal only to the individual without changes in the framework,” said Springmann. “What really works [are] population-based approaches that affect the whole food environment.”