Slice red meat in half to save the planet

  Last updated February 7, 2019 at 10:31 am

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Halving meat consumption may be the only way to sustainably feed the world, report claims.


sausages and meat food tray


Halving red meat and sugar consumption and doubling fruit, veggies and nuts in the western diet may be the only way to feed the world’s growing population without destroying the planet, according to a report by Australian and international researchers.


With the global population expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, the scientists say the western diet must change dramatically and quickly.


“Feeding the growing world population will prove impossible unless we modify both eating habits and food production,” Griffith University’s Professor Ian Lowe, who was not involved in the study, told the AusSMC. “More than 800 million people don’t get enough food.”


The problem is that the western diet is environmentally unsustainable – red meat in particular is notoriously carbon-intensive – and it is rapidly replacing traditional diets around the world.


“For centuries, people in Asia and Africa have grown and consumed a wide variety of nutritious foods,” Professor  Kadambot Siddique from UWA told the Centre. “Unfortunately, more recent generations have slowly but surely changed their diets and have moved away from many of these traditional foods.”


The study authors propose a mainly plant-based diet termed the ‘planetary health diet’, which they say could feed the world while avoiding runaway climate change and curbing biodiversity loss, and land and freshwater use.


UNSW nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton explained what the planetary health diet would look like:


“Daily recommendations include: 0-14g red meat, 0-14g pork, 0-58g poultry or 0-100g fish (including shellfish), 200-600g of vegetables, 100-300g of fruit, 0-100g dry beans, 0-75g tree nuts, 0-75g peanuts, 0-500g milk and milk products,” she said. “Wholegrains are set at 230g/day, but can be adjusted to meet energy needs. Sugar is set at a maximum of 5 per cent of daily kilojoules.”


And the new diet wouldn’t just save the planet, it would also save millions from an early grave as a result of health conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, add the study authors.


“Unhealthy diets are a major cause of ill-health in Australia,” said Prof Lowe. “Two-thirds of adults in this country are now overweight or obese.”


But will Aussies be prepared to give up their beloved lamb and steak?


“For many, who are currently consuming more than 700 per cent of the new recommended dietary intake of red meat, this diet will be like a red flag to a bull,” said Flinders University’s Professor Stuart Walker.  “Coupling this to a drastically reduced sugar intake would make this a bitter pill to swallow.”


The health benefits may be the best way to sell the diet to consumers weary of climate change doom and gloom stories, Distinguished Professor Bill Laurance from James Cook University told the Centre. “Realistically, few people will avoid hamburgers to save rainforests,” he said.


Read more expert reactions here


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About the Author

Joseph Milton
Joe Milton is an evolutionary biologist who, after studying the evolution of plants for ten years at various Scottish universities, made a move into journalism. Since then he has written for the Financial Times, Nature and New Scientist, among others. Joe joined the London Science Media Centre in 2010, where he was Senior Press Officer for Mental Health, before taking up the position of Senior Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre in July 2012.

Published By

The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.


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