Investigating the impacts of shifting to a plant-based diet on society and the environment

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: The Centre for Environmental Policy

Abstract

It is now acknowledged that the global rise in food, water and energy demand, along with the predicted increase in global population and climate change are putting natural resources under more pressure than ever before. At the core of this increasing demand for food and energy is the availability and sustainable use of a limited land resource that delivers multiple ecosystem services. With the ever-increasing global demand for meat and dairy, production of which has quadrupled over the past 50 years, environmentalists have focused primarily on the consequences of methane production on the ecosystem. At the same time, vegan and animal welfare activists are calling for a shift towards a more ethical, plant-based diet. In the UK, the number of vegans has risen by 350% in the past decade.

As human activities can exacerbate natural disservices, it is worth exploring how better management of distinct ecosystems could support human health and preserve biodiversity. With 72% of agricultural land devoted to livestock globally, managing our ecosystems may regulate outbreaks in infectious diseases as well as pest control.

This research project will aim to understand the impacts of shifting towards a plant-based diet on the following indicators:
1. Human health: What are the potential co-benefits of transitioning to a plant-based diet on the spread of infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance?
2. Supply chain: What is the current consumer demand and how will this transition affect the supply chain of plant-based foods that may not be grown within the EU?
3. Crop choice and plant-based alternatives: How will this dietary shift determine what crops will be cultivated?
4. Cultivation method: Will this shift require a change in land use and could alternative cultivation methods support a more sustainable farming?
5. What are the impacts on the land and land use: Will a plant-based agriculture affect soil quality and biodiversity?

Methodology
Environmental aspect: These questions are inherently linked to the issue of climate change society is currently facing. As most energy and food security rely on sustainable land use, it is likely that considerable direct and indirect land use change will occur globally. Part of this project would look at the soil changes that could follow from a shift to a plant-based diet. The drive to look beyond conventional interventions to achieve change and investing in innovative cultivation methods places vertical farming as an attracting alternative for its potential to reduce the area of land occupied by crops.

Socio-economic aspect: This projects further aims to understand the current social and societal landscape with respects to veganism and plant-based diets. One of its goals it to appraise current eating habits and assess the attitude of the population regarding the issue of climate change and the shift towards lower-impact plant-based systems. In addition, I aim to evaluate the change in costs a dietary shift will bring to consumers, and how this will impact the supply chain, as well as productions costs. As such transition in diet will impact the meat and dairy industry, this project will also aim to address the potential for new alternative markets for producers.

Health aspect: Little investigation has been done in terms of potential health co-benefits of environmental interventions with respects to cattle. Notably, food-born infections that result in hospitalisation or death are more often associated with animal-based than vegetable-based foods. Environmental researchers are now starting to collaborate with public health experts to look at the interface between environmental, animal and human health. Infectious diseases threaten individual well-being and represent a major public health burden, both ecologically and economically, locally and internationally. I plan to investigate the relationship between diet change, consumer health and long-term societal health.

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2110442 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2018 16/12/2022 Sarah Kakadellis