Health

Plant-Based Diets Combat the Obesity and Climate Crises, Says Top EU Scientific Advisor

Plant-based diets promote human health, combat climate change, and foster a more sustainable food system, highlights Eric Lambin, a member of the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors and co-author of Towards Sustainable Food Consumption.

In a recent interview published in Horizon magazineLambin, a geography and sustainability science professor at UCLouvain, Belgium, discussed the need for a more sustainable and healthy food system. 

“We are now facing a public health crisis – with widespread overweight, obesity and malnutrition issues — and a global environmental crisis”

“We are now facing a public health crisis – with widespread overweight, obesity and malnutrition issues — and a global environmental crisis,” he told Horizon.

To tackle obesity and climate change, Lambin recommends shifting towards plant-based diets, emphasizing legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, reducing meat consumption, and prioritizing sustainably sourced fish and seafood. He also noted the need to reduce food waste and minimize the unnecessary use of resources.

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The scale of the livestock industry

Concerning meat, he highlights the significant impact of the livestock industry on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. According to Lambin, livestock accounts for more than 14% of human-induced GHG, surpassing all cars and trucks globally. The production of meat, particularly beef, directly contributes to climate change through methane emissions and indirectly through deforestation for pastures and animal feed production. 

Lambin emphasizes that the public often underestimates the scale of the livestock industry, with two-thirds of agricultural lands dedicated to grazing and 40% of cropland used for animal feed production.

Speaking about consumers, he says that buyers play a vital role in driving change through well-informed purchasing decisions. However, Lambin notes that personal and external factors such as price, information, and social and cultural norms influence consumer behaviors. Therefore, a variety of measures targeting the entire food environment are necessary.

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Promoting greener food

Regarding the role of the EU in promoting healthier and greener food, Lambin suggests policy measures that target the entire “food environment,” from consumers to food providers, producers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. Steps include adjusting subsidies, developing labels, and expanding carbon-pricing schemes. Lambin also recommends a mix of complementary policies based on pricing, information, and regulation.

Lambin also addresses the balance between international and local food trade, highlighting that locally produced food isn’t always more sustainable than imported food. However, the EU could restrict imports from areas where food production causes significant environmental damage, such as biodiversity-rich ecosystems and water-scarce regions.

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Animal welfare standards

Lambin emphasizes the ethical dimension of animal welfare and its key role within a “One Health” perspective that integrates the health of people, animals, and the environment. The interview also touches on the importance of treating small farmers fairly and the challenges of resistance in this sector.

“People shift to plant-based diets for health, environmental and/or animal-welfare motives. All three motivations are equally important and they point towards the same direction: decreasing the consumption of animal-sourced products and decreasing intensive animal farming.

“This creates an opportunity for companies with a focus on quality products and high animal-welfare standards. For policy, a meat tax framed as an “animal-welfare levy” might be more socially acceptable than an environmental tax,” Lambin told Horizon.

Written by Horizon staff, the entire interview was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

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