Can a plant-based diet lead to a more sustainable future?

27 April 2023 dot 4-minute read
Healthy Body Feature Diet and nutrition Bone health Live Well
Sustainability experts say adopting a plant-based diet is a viable solution for people looking to reduce their carbon footprint. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Health experts have long advocated the plant-based diet because it improves life expectancy and reduces the risk of chronic diseases. But, as it turns out, the health benefits of this approach to eating also extend to the planet.
Consuming whole, minimally processed plant-sourced foods can help limit greenhouse gas emissions, preserve water resources and protect biodiversity. Read on to learn more about the impact of food consumption on the environment.

How one's food choices help the planet

Research shows that a plant-based diet uses less cropland, irrigation water and nitrogenous fertiliser than diets high in animal-based products. (Credit: Shutterstock)
The global food supply chain causes 25 per cent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to studies in Science and Lancet Planetary Health. In addition, the food systems account for approximately 70 per cent of the planet's freshwater withdrawals and nearly 40 per cent of global land.
Animal agriculture produces 65 per cent of the world's human-made nitrous oxide emissions, with a climate change impact greater than that of carbon dioxide. Here's why eating less meat can contribute to a more sustainable future.

Reduces greenhouse gas emissions

Livestock production generates large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, which are potent greenhouse gases. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that producing meat, dairy and eggs accounts for approximately 14.5 per cent of all human-related GHG emissions.
Focusing on plant-based food production can help reduce global GHG emissions by 49 per cent.

More efficient farmland use

FAO reports deforestation was the largest source of GHG emissions in 2019. Beef production accounts for 36 per cent of agriculture-linked forest replacement, Global Forest Watch estimates.
Research from Our World in Data shows that generating 1,000 kilocalories from a herd of beef cattle requires 119 square metres of land. In comparison, rice needs less than one square metre of land to yield the same number of calories.
Nature reports that replacing 20 per cent of the world's beef consumption with meat substitutes by 2050 can reduce annual deforestation by half.

Conserves fresh water

Livestock farming severely strains the planet's limited water supply. Fresh water makes up just three per cent of the world's water. Yet crop irrigation uses 70 per cent of it, with 24 per cent going to water-intensive crops for animal feed.
Producing one kilogram of beef requires 43,000 litres of water, while the same weight of grain uses only 1,000 litres. Limiting animal products can reduce fresh water use and minimise water pollution.

Sustainable eating

A plant-based diet prioritises your health and the planet's. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Eating more plant-derived foods is not only a wise personal choice but a responsible one for the planet. It reduces your carbon footprint and supports the preservation of the planet's biodiversity.
Eating sustainably doesn't mean you have to go vegan. Instead, you can subscribe to a Mediterranean diet, which includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables and seafood. If you need support, a comprehensive wellness programme like AIA Vitality can help you make the change. This personalised, science-backed health and wellbeing platform supports you daily in making better lifestyle choices.
You play a significant role in preserving the planet for future generations. Adopting a plant-based diet is a meaningful yet practical way to contribute to this initiative and stay healthy in the process.
Nutrients. 2022. Plant-Based Dietary Patterns for Human and Planetary Health. [online] [Accessed on 3 January 2022]
American Heart Association. How does Plant-Forward (Plant-Based) Eating Benefit your Health? [online] [Accessed on 3 January 2022]
The Lancet Planetary Health, Vol. 6, Issue 11. 2022. Health and environmental impacts of plant-rich dietary patterns: a US prospective cohort study. [online] [Accessed on 3 January 2022]
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2022. Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. [online] [Accessed on 4 January 2022]
International Institute for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development. [online] [Accessed on 4 January 2022]
World Economic Forum. 2022. Vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian? 3 ways to eat more sustainably. [online] [Accessed on 3 January 2022]
World Economic Forum. 2022. Explainer: What exactly is freshwater and is there enough of it? [online] [Accessed on 6 January 2022]
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 2022. A Vegan Diet: Eating for the Environment. [online] [Accessed on 3 January 2022]
World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. 2021. Plant-based diets and their impact on health, sustainability and the environment: a review of the evidence. [online] [Accessed on 3 January 2022]
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Major cuts of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock within reach (Key facts and findings). [online] [Accessed on 17 February 2023]
United Nations. 2021. New FAO analysis reveals carbon footprint of agri-food supply chain. [online] [Accessed on 17 February 2023]
Science. 2018. Reducing food's environmental impacts through producers and consumers. [online] [Accessed on 17 February 2023]
Nature. 2022. Eating one-fifth less beef could halve deforestation. [online] [Accessed on 17 February 2023]
Global Environmental Change. 2019. Agricultural and forestry trade drives large share of tropical deforestation emissions. [online] [Accessed on 17 February 2023]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

Related articles