Course:CONS200/2019/Environmental, social and economic impacts of a global shift to vegetarianism: Can it save the world?

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A vegetarian refers to the practice of abstaining from the consumption of one or more animal product, especially animal flesh, including red meat, poultry, seafood and any other kind of animal. [1] The vegetarian diet is subcategorized into lacto-ovo vegetarians that consume both eggs and milk; lacto-vegetarian that consumes dairy products but avoid eggs; ovo-vegetarian that consume eggs but avoid dairy; and vegan that avoid eating all animal products. Other than vegetarians, there is also a semi-vegetarian diet that mostly depends on vegetarian foods however include some extent of meat. Pescatarian avoids flesh eating other than fish; pollo-vegetarian that avoid flesh-eating other than poultry; Vegetarianism today is adopted widely due to various reasons. Some vegetarians refuse to eat meat because they respect life and religious purposes. Ethical motivations highlighted that non-consumption of meat and animal products can prevent animal cruelty and advocate animal rights. A number of studies evident the rising health, economic and environmental benefits of vegetarianism in comparison to a meat consuming diet.[2] Despite the positive influences of vegetarianism, there are also rising criticism of this practice. These critiques doubt the substantial effectiveness in targeting environmental problems, improving personal health conditions as well as promoting the overall social and economic well-being.

A vegetarian diet is a diet without meat


The Evolution of Vegetarianism

The earliest record of vegetarianism can be traced back to 7th century BCE, which followed the idea of all living beings. The history of vegetarianism can be traced back to The Ancient Greek. The best-known vegetarian from The Ancient Greek is Pythagoras. He is a philosopher and the creator of the Pythagoras theorem in mathematics. Besides the contribution to mathematics and philosophy, he was called the father of vegetarianism and the diet meal without meat was also called “Pythagorean diet” before the mid-1800s. Although Pythagoras was an early proponent of vegetarianism back in 500 BC. , many anthropologists believe that some human was vegetarian before recorded history. [3] Animals were quite hard for the early human to hunt while the plants cannot move so that early human may have a plant-based diet for living. Moreover, even though we are the omnivorous animal, our digestive system is more similar to herbivores than carnivorous animals.

Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism (1618-20); Peter Paul Rubens

In Indian Culture, vegetarianism is promoted by many religious groups and philosophers as the Indian society is strongly influenced by the attitude of nonviolence towards animals. [4]More importantly, vegetarianism was also served medical and ritual purification purposes amongst the Egyptians and Hellenes. Unlike the disappearance of vegetarianism from the Christianized Roman Empire, the practice remained consistent in India.[5] Later on, vegetarianism re-emerged and became widespread in the 19th and 20th century, the first Vegetarian Society was established in the United Kingdom in 1847. Afterward, the International Vegetarian Union, a national societies association was founded in 1908. Recently, vegetarianism is accepted in the 20th century.[6]

Religion Purposes

Vegetarianism is also frequently related to numerous religions, such as Bahá'í Faith, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and so on. [7] In most of the religions, there are no specific diet restrictions that forbid its followers from eating meat, although vegetarianism was more influential to certain religion's principles than others. For instance, Christians used to have general disagreement over whether or not this practice should be carried and beliefs.[8] Likewise, Jainism followers who believe that all living organisms, even micro-organisms have a soul, and therefore the harm to any living organisms should be minimized.[9][10]

Health Impacts

Nutrition and planning a vegetarian diet

Western vegetarian and vegan diets which avoid the consumption of meat and other animal by-products typically introduces both the advantages and health-related challenges. The common advantages of not eating meat are that it helps to avoid negative health impacts of red meat in the form of processed meat. Lower consumption of saturated fat and higher levels of vitamin C and E, magnesium and dietary fibre are all considered to be beneficial. On the other hand, the poorly planned diet is also problematic due to the deficiency intake of omega-3fatty acids, protein, iron and Vitamin B12. [11]

Due to the removal of meat from diet, vegetarians generally eat less protein than non-vegetarians. Similarly, vegetarian diets contain lower bioavailable iron than meat sources, therefore its absorption can be inhibited. A well-planned vegetarian diet is sufficient enough to supply the same level of nutrients as a meat eater throughout all stages of life, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. [12]

A basket full of fresh fruit and vegetables

Vegetarianism and Obesity

Due to lower access to saturated and animal fat, vegetarian diets have been promoted by many to reduce body weights. Studies which investigated the relationship between obesity and vegetarian diet compared the BMI in vegetarians and non-vegetarians revealed that vegetarians are usually thinner than non-vegetarians. On average, vegetarians have a BMI that is 1kg/m2 lower than the non-vegetarians. Even though the BMI varies between European and California subjects, yet the difference in BMI is consistent in men and women, and in all age group within the same geographic area. [13]In addition to BMI analysis, researches also presented the definite correlation between plasma cholesterol concentration. The total cholesterol concentration data (mmol/l) adjusted for sex and age indicates that vegan has the lowest mean cholesterol, and this value gradually increases in the order of vegetarians, pescatarians and meat-eaters. [14] The overall findings of lower BMI and cholesterol levels in vegetarians relative to meat eaters is directly associated with lower prevalence of obesity and lower saturated fat. [15]

BMI measurement

Vegetarianism mortality, cancer, other diseases

Cancer is a major cause of death in the United States and around the world. Starting with abnormal cell growth, diseases could potentially invade the rest of the body, trigger undesired symptoms, and even result in mortality. [16] The process and method of cancer treatment can be extremely complex and costly, though more than half of cancer is potentially preventable by changing lifestyles and dietary patterns. [17] Evidence shows that 30-35% of cancer-related death is linked to diet. [18] A comparison study case found that the cancer risk is significantly lower among vegetarians in comparison to non-vegetarians. When analyzing the specific vegetarian patterns, vegan diet is appeared to be the most effective protection for overall cancer incidence cancers. Moreover, vegetarian diet also appeared to specifically decrease the risk of cancers associated with the gastrointestinal systems. [19] The structure of the diet enables vegetarians to intake higher fibers. This contribute to the lower mean blood pressure and risk of constipation. Furthermore, vegetarianism is also commonly related to lower risk for type II diabetes, diverticular disease, gallstone, appendicitis, and ischemic heart disease. [20] In relation to cancer and diseases, some advocates claim vegetarianism contributes to longevity and lower mortality rate, however this conclusion is controversial as there is no direct proof or information to support the association.

Environmental Impacts

Climate change and meat-based diet

The threats of climate change posed by greenhouse gas (GHG) emission in the food production chain has caught the attention of many researchers. GHG emission is a crucial indicator of climate change. High GHG emission contributes to warmer earth by absorbing infrared radiation. It is worth noting that a small increase in earth average temperature can have a devastating consequence in global scale, impacts on diverse species and the distribution of species. (latest slides) Most criticize for meat-based diet is on cattle, blaming on methane emissions and animal waste. Methane is more than 25 times the heat-trapping efficiency compare to carbon dioxide. [21] Human-related methane emission results from livestock and decomposition of manures. Thus, by changing to plant-based diet, the negative impacts in the meat production chain can be reduced or eliminated. [22] Research carried out in the UK shows that the data of GHG emissions for high meat diet is 50% and 54% higher than for vegetarians (data reported for females and then males). It also suggests that the majority of adults (age 18-64) is categorized in the high meat diet. It is observed a progressively increase pattern in GHG emissions as the proportion of meat in one’s diet increases. [23] So, as people continue to have a meat-based diet, especially those that with high meat proportion in their daily diet. The GHG emission will continue to rise and climate change is likely to worsen. Therefore, shifting to a vegetarian diet can possibly reduce GHG emissions by suppressing the livestock agriculture and “save” the world.

What do pork, beef and chicken imply about the environment

Climate change and plant-based diet

However, shifting to plant-based diet is not always associated with a more sustainable way of living. Research shows that in some scenarios, a plant-based diet releases more greenhouse gases. In the scenario where meat is replaced by fruits and vegetables, since calories per kg in vegetables is lower than in meat, people need to consume more fruits and vegetables than meat to retain the average intake of calories per day, this results in more production of vegetables and fruits, which can cause pollution and release of GHG. Thus a higher GHG emission of vegetarians than meat-eaters.[24] Therefore, in the context of GHG emission, shifting to a vegetarian diet may not necessarily “save” the world.

Other benefits of vegetarianism

Despite the direct impacts on GHG emission caused by vegetarianism, the indirect benefits of shifting to plant-based diet is huge. One environmental benefit is avoiding processed and packaged food. By promoting buying locally produced, organic food, people spend less on packages which can lead to less waste and pollution during production. In addition to that, promotion of plant-based diet raises people’s awareness toward a healthier and sustainable diet, thus, leading to a sustainable future.[25] A global shift to a vegetarian diet can act as a motivation for people pursuing a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. It also implies that people are more concerned about the environment and the impacts result from human activities.

Economic Impacts

The positive externality of production and consumption

Health and economics

The Mediterranean diet may be one of the healthiest in the world. Most of the plant-based food is rich in nutrients such as fruits, vegetables, grains. They are mainly focus on fresh and avoid heavily processed ingredients. Dietary professionals now agree that meat alternatives (nuts, seeds, beans and tofu) can provide lots of sources of protein and other nutrients that would found in meat. Contrary to common belief, a plant-based diet contains as much or more iron than meat. Therefore, meat products are not necessary, and more and more nutritionists believe that some meat products are even harmful to human health.[26] Vegetarianism can help to regulate people's diet and can effectively avoid some physical diseases. Studies have also shown that vegetarians have the lowest BMI and obesity rates, a healthy plant-based diet can help to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type-II diabetes [27]which are the top killers in many western countries. Government and people need to spend a large amount of money on health care in order to treat diseases and improve people’s health. By shifting people diet to vegetarianism, it can help to reduce their potential medical costs which is the positive externality of consumption.

Commercialized vegetarian burger
Environment and economics

Switching to vegetarianism is good for the environment as well. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced that around 30% of the land on earth is either directly or indirectly used for the production of livestock. Most of the forest land in Amazon are used as cattle pastureland.[28] Over-grazing has now become a serious problem, results in loss of biodiversity and productivity of the land.[29] The animal agriculture industry is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases emissions in the world. According to a recent study, production of plant-based meat substitutes created less greenhouse gas (about ten times) emissions than meat-based products. On the other hand, livestock production leads to unsustainable water use because it needs a high quality of water. [30]Environment costs is a growing concern for both government and society, reduction in livestock production may help to reach environmental sustainability which can benefit the future generation so that reduce their government spending on this.

The negative externality of production and consumption

The mainstream of diet is still carnivorous. So most of the food production companies in the market are involved in meat processing. The promotion of vegetarianism is a challenge to the existing food industry, they need new technology to maintain their profits. However, improvement of technology requires lots of money. This might be a hard time for those industries, and employees will be also affected. The unemployment rate will rise, which will lead to an increase in psychological pressure and the decrease in physical health, thus bringing negative effects on people and society.[31] What’s more, the technology to produce meat substitutes is not mature enough, this will result in the rise in the price of products. For some low-income groups, they will spend more on food than before, which will lead to a decline in the quality of life.

Social Impacts

Societal reasons for vegetarianism

Help end world hunger. Awakens the spirit of compassion towards animal rights. Enjoy the world of vegetarian cuisine.

Help end world hunger

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that food production will need to increase globally by 70% in order to feed the world's predicted 9.1 billion populations in 2050.[32] Thus, world hunger is considered to be a situation that requires an emergent solution. However, there are more than enough food to feed the entire world’s human population, the main reason why world hunger exists is because of the meat-based diet. People with non-vegetarian diet consumes both crops and meat from animals, which indicates that agriculture production not only serve for feeding humans but also serve for animals that are provided for humans to eat. That is to say, the more people with a meat diet, the more people will starve due to the scarcity of food production. Biologically saying, the biomass of producers, in this case, the crops supposed to stay the highest; with the transforming energy upward through the food chain, less and less biomass will be passed through. For example, a great amount of plant protein can only produce a short amount of meat protein. If the crops and grains were directly fed to humans instead of animals, more food would be available, and we could easily provide healthy and affordable vegetarian food for everyone in the world.[33]

Food insecurity and hunger: family devoured after neighbors visited with food.

Vegetarianism and Animal Rights

One of the main reason for one to become vegetarian is the individual’s ethics and the awareness of animal right. Animals are considered to be human’s friends. People with religion or huge compassion tend to believe that animals have equal rights as humans, their feelings should be taken into the account regardless of the benefits they can provide to humankind. Our modern agriculture pattern tends to keep poultry such as cows, pigs, chickens, ducks under the overcrowded environment. In these places, they may seldom or even never be able to move, run or see what the sky looks like. All of these suffering taken by animals are simply for the sake of humans having burgers, nuggets, or turkey etc. Moreover, animals are usually killed under tremendous pain by humans. Hence, a vegetarian lifestyle awakens our compassion towards animals and guides us towards a kinder society [34].

Enjoy the world of vegetarian cuisine

Vegetarian foods can also be diverse, tasty, colourful and easy. Humans have been persistently perusing the invention of new, original cuisine. Up until today, we have discovered a different variety of plant-based product that imitate the flavour of the meat. The “beyond meat burger” produced by A&W is a great example. The production of “beyond meat burger” has raised a series of competition and evolution in the pass of plant-based product. It also proved to us that plant can be as delicious as meat after processing. Also, a variety of vegetarian restaurants which contain innovative cuisines are becoming more popular throughout our society.[35]


Recently, shifting to vegetarianism is a popular trend and will make some positive impacts on the environment, social and economic in long term; however, at the present stage, we need to consider more about changing to vegetarianism. For health impact, shifting to vegetarianism will reduce the risk of obesity, type II diabetes and cholesterol level for human-being but it may also lead to iron deficiency since meat is the most direct way for human-being to intake iron element. Methane and carbon dioxide emission is reduced due to reduction of livestock. Pursuing of plant-based diet also increase the demand for plant, which further reduce atmospheric CO2 by photosynthesis. However, plants have lower energy density than meats. It means we have to eat more plants than meats to intake enough energy. This may increase GHG emission from the processing of plants and fruits. For economics impacts, shifting vegetarianism has both positive and negative externalities on production and consumption. The plant-based diet can reduce some risks of diseases which can reduce government spending on health care. However, in the short term, production of meat alternative products may be required a higher level of technology which needs more spending on this. For social impacts, shifting to vegetarianism can possibly end the world hunger and minimize the food insecurity. Since the crops are directly fed to human instead of livestock, there will be more food available. In addition, livestocks are animals that deserve a right just like us. By changing our diet, we can relief their suffering. Even though shifting to vegetarianism can make many positive impacts, we still cannot follow this trend blindly.


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