A new study in Nature has advocated humanity switching en masse to a 'flexitarian' diet to avoid widespread food shortages and environmental damage caused by the production and consumption of meat.

The article, titled ‘Options for Keeping the Food System within Environmental Limits’ is a combined work by 23 scientists. It argues that our current food production system is completely unsustainable in terms of contributing to climate change, polluting ecosystems and depleting freshwater resources.

The flexitarian diet: meat out, legumes in

The authors conclude that radical dietary changes are necessary to ensure food production continues within “a safe operating space for humanity”. Further, these changes must be combined with efficiency improvements in food production and concerted efforts to reduce food loss and waste.

The dietary changes the authors advocate centre around transitioning to a flexitarian diet where meat is only eaten once a week. This would be part of the 90% reduction in meat consumption and a 50% drop in egg consumption across western countries the authors say must happen by 2050 to avert calamitous environmental damage.

A plant-based diet would replace our current intake as part of the changes the authors propose. The new diet would also involve eating five times as many legumes than are currently consumed and quadrupling the amount of nuts and seeds we eat.

“An important first step would be to align national food-based dietary guidelines with the present evidence on healthy eating and the environmental impacts of diets,” the report states.

The current food production network is damaging the environment through greenhouse gases produced by livestock, excessive water use across the agricultural sector and ocean ‘dead zones’ resulting from agricultural pollution.

The study comes just days after an alarming IPCC report

The report follows the publication of a United Nations’ climate change body’s report that concluded the world must implement drastic changes to ensure a rise in temperature from global warming remains under 1.5°C by the end of the century.

The lead author of the more recent report, Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford, said it is the first study to offer a comprehensive survey of the impact global food production has on the planet. What the authors found was “pretty shocking”, he said.

“We are really risking the sustainability of the whole system. If we are interested in people being able to farm and eat, then we better not do that,” he said.

Springmann said there was already some evidence that younger generations are moving towards a more sustainable diet but noted that change needs to be more widespread and driven by world leaders.

“I think we can do it, but we really need much more proactive governments to provide the right framework,” he said. “People can make a personal difference by changing their diet, but also by knocking on the doors of their politicians and saying we need better environmental regulations – that is also very important. Do not let politicians off the hook.”

Header image credit:Gejza Horváth