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Plant-Rich Diet

Vertumnus by the painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo, created 1590-91, symbolizing the Roman god of metamorphoses.

Shifting to a diet rich in plants is a demand-side solution to global warming that runs counter to the meat-centric Western diet on the rise globally. That diet comes with a steep climate price tag: one-fifth of global emissions. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Plant-rich diets reduce emissions and also tend to be healthier, leading to lower rates of chronic disease. According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.

Bringing about dietary change is not simple because eating is profoundly personal and cultural, but promising strategies abound. Plant-based options must be available, visible, and enticing, including high-quality meat substitutes. Also critical: ending price-distorting government subsidies, such as those benefiting the U.S. livestock industry, so that the prices of animal protein more accurately reflect their true cost.

As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has said, making the transition to a plant-based diet may be the most effective way an individual can stop climate change.


“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”: Pollan, Michael. “Unhappy Meals.” New York Times Magazine. January 29, 2007.

livestock…emissions: FAO. Tackling Climate Change through Livestock: A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013; Goodland, R., and J. Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change. What If the Key Actors in Climate Change Were Pigs, Chickens and Cows?” World Watch, November/December 2009.

cattle…greenhouse gases: Ranganathan, Janet, and Richard Waite. “Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts.” World Resources Institute. April 20, 2016.

protein eaten [vs.] dietary requirements: Ranganathan, Janet, et al. “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future.” Working Paper, Installment 11 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute, 2016.

daily calories…from protein: WHO and FAO. “Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases.” Report of a joint WHO/FAO expert consultation, WHO Technical Report Series, No. 916 (TRS 916). Geneva: World Health Organization, 2003.

study [of] transition to plant-based diets: Springmann, Marco, H. Charles, J. Godfray, Mike Rayner, and Peter Scarborough. “Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Cobenefits of Dietary Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 15 (2016): 4146-4151.

report [about] “ambitious animal protein reduction”: Ranganathan, “Shifting.”

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods: Gelles, David. “The ‘Impossible’ Veggie Burger: A Tech Industry Answer to the Big Mac.” New York Times. January 13, 2017; Strom, Stephanie. “Plant-Based, the Beyond Burger Aims to Stand Sturdy Among Meat.” New York Times. May 22, 2016.

markets for nonmeats [growing]: Kristof, Nicholas. “The (Fake) Meat Revolution.” New York Times, September 19, 2015; Riley, Tess. “From Vegan Beef to Fishless Filets: Meat Substitutes Are on the Rise.” The Guardian, October 15, 2014.

stories that highlight athletic heroes: Hartke, Kristen. “These Athletes Went Vegan—and Stayed Strong.” Washington Post. November 26, 2016.

$53 billion [in] livestock subsidies: Carrington, Damian. “Meat Tax Far Less Unpalatable Than Government Thinks, Research Finds.” The Guardian. November 23, 2015.

proposing…a tax on meat: Wellesley, Laura, Catherine Happer, and Antony Froggatt. Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption. London: Chatham House, 2015.

Thich Nhat Hanh [on] plant-based diet: Hanh, Thich Nhat. “Blue Cliff Letter: Sitting in the Autumn Breeze.” 2007.

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