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).