Shireen Kassam* (left) is a Consultant Haematologist and Lifestyle Medicine Physician. She is founder and director of Plant-based health professionals UK and co-founder of Plant Based Health Online.
Laura Freeman* (right) is a GP and Lifestyle Medicine Physician. She is co-founder and medical director of Plant Based Health Online.
Diet-related diseases are at an all-time high and the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change has been called a ‘code red for humanity’.
These two issues are intimately related. Our food system is at the centre of three global crises: health, climate and ecological. We also have a crisis of ethics whereby more than a billion people remain hungry despite the production of enough food to feed two planets. If everyone ate a diet typical of the wealthiest nations, we would need seven planets to feed the world.
Our food system is at the centre of three global crises: health, climate and ecological.
Red and processed red meat production and consumption is particularly harmful for personal and planetary health, with 842,000 deaths associated with excessive red meat consumption globally. The largest analysis to assess the co-benefits of a nutritionally adequate yet sustainable diet, using the Planetary Health Plate as an example, found that the adoption of such a diet could prevent 19–63% of all deaths and up to 10–40% cases of cancer whilst at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions up to 50% and land use up to 62%.
More than a billion people remain hungry despite the production of enough food to feed two planets.
These recommendations reflect the fact that animal agriculture accounts for nearly 60% of food system greenhouse gas emissions, with beef and dairy farming contributing the majority.
Animal agriculture is also responsible for deforestation, biodiversity and species loss, land, air and ocean pollution, not to mention the generation of new infectious threats with pandemic potential and contributing to antibiotic resistance. It is a highly inefficient system which also harms people, usually marginalised, migrant groups, who have little choice but to work in slaughterhouses, a workplace that contributes to both mental and physical ill health.
We now have compelling evidence that a plant-based diet can promote pandemic resilience, reducing the severity of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The first clue came from a study from China demonstrating the impact on the health of the gut microbiome, which thrives on a fibre-rich diet, on COVID-19 severity.
Animal agriculture accounts for nearly 60% of food system greenhouse gas emissions.
We accept that this study has a number of limitations, nonetheless, those participants described as plant-based had significantly higher consumption of legumes, nuts and vegetables and lower consumption of red/processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol compared to participants who did not follow a plant-based diet.
A further paper reporting more robust data from the Zoe COVID symptom study analysed diet quality in more than half a million participants from the US and UK. During the follow-up period, 31,815 COVID-19 cases were documented. Adherence to a healthy plant-based diet was calculated using the healthy plant-based diet index. Those eating a healthy plant-based diet had a 10% reduction in risk of COVID-19 and a 40% reduction in severity of COVID-19. The impact of a plant-based diet was greatest in those from lower socioeconomic groups and independent of underlying chronic health conditions and lifestyle factors.
It is heartening to see that healthcare professionals are strongly advocating for climate health. Greener practice and Doctors for XR (Extinction Rebellion) are doing an incredible job at highlighting the impact of healthcare services on climate change and providing pressure for the implementation of readily available solutions. Similarly, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change are working at a policy level.
Our food choices matter. Without addressing food production, we cannot meet our climate targets.
At a time when public institutions and civil society organisations are removing meat from menus, we need to do better. Our food choices matter. Without addressing food production, we cannot meet our climate targets. Healthcare professionals should be leading by example and supporting patients to make healthier choices that will improve their quality of life and those of future generations.