The consequences if the world decided to go meat-free
If vegetarianism was adopted by everyone by 2050, the world would have about seven million fewer deaths every year – and veganism would bring that up to eight million.
Food-related emissions would drop by around 60%, according to Marco Springmann, a research fellow at the Oxford Martin School’s Future of Food programme. This would be down to getting rid of red meat – which come from methane-producing livestock – from people’s diets.
However, farmers in the developing world could really suffer. Arid and semi-arid rangeland can only be used to raise animals, such as the Sahel land strip in Africa next to the Sahara; nomadic groups that keep livestock there would be forced to settle permanently and lose their cultural identities if there was no more meat.
Repurposing former pastures into native habitats and forests would alleviate climate change and bring back lost biodiversity, including larger herbivores such as buffalo, and predators such as wolves, all of which were previously pushed out or killed in order to keep cattle.
Everybody currently engaged in the livestock industry would need to be retrained for a new career – this could be in agriculture, reforestation or producing bioenergy. Failing to provide career alternatives could lead to mass unemployment and social upheaval, particularly in traditionally rural communities.
Taking livestock like sheep away could actually have a negative impact on biodiversity, as their grazing has helped to shape the land for centuries – so some farmers could be paid to keep animals for environmental purposes.
No more Christmas turkey – losing meat means that we would also lose traditions. Many communities around the world offer gifts of livestock at weddings and celebrations. For Ben Phalan at the University of Cambridge, this is “why efforts to reduce meat consumption have often faltered”.
No meat would lower the chances of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers – and so save the world 2-3% global gross domestic product in medical bills.
But we would need to replace meat with nutritional substitutes, in particular for the world’s estimated two billion-plus undernourished people. Animal products contain more nutrients per calorie than staples like grains and rice.