July 9, 2014

For Want of a T-Bone Steak the Biosphere Was Lost

, director of communications for the School
of Public Health at Loma Linda University

An old proverb goes, “For want of a nail the kingdom was
lost,” meaning that the smallest of actions sometimes leads to the direst of

Scientists believe that current trends in the demand for
meat worldwide are unsustainable and may likely lead to irreversible
consequences for people. Future generations may be reciting the famous proverb
differently: “For want of a T-bone steak the biosphere was lost.”

With the focus of the Seventh-day Adventist Church sharply
on health this week during a major health conference in Geneva, Switzerland, it
is worth remembering that large populations around the world have thrived on
vegetarian diets throughout history.

Before 150 years ago, people eating plant-based or meatless
diets did so on the basis of religious, ethical, or philosophical values.Since then, scientific evidence has
supported the benefits of eating a vegetarian diet.

If large populations around the world chose to eat a
vegetarian diet, the harmful emissions contributing to global warming could be
greatly reduced.

A recent study conducted by doctors Joan Sabaté and Samuel
Soret out of Loma Linda University Health reaches a similar conclusion. The
study found that a vegetarian diet is significantly less damaging to the
environment than a non-vegetarian diet, and with the added bonus of being

Global Warming and Our Food Choices

Climate change is a major environmental and public health
issue, but it is also a threat to our food supply. Ironically, the food system
itself is a significant contributor to global warming. Research shows that our
current food system is unsustainable; however, decreasing the demand for animal
products would also reduce emissions from livestock production.

Since 1963, there has been a 62 percent increase worldwide
in meat consumption.The projected
increased size of the world's population and the increase in the appetite for
meat are pushing our food systems to unsustainable levels.

Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are the harmful
emissions within green house gases that contribute to global warming. The
production of food contributes to these emissions. However, emissions from the
production of animal products are less sustainable compared to plant-based

A diet is sustainable if it has a low impact on the
environment, protects the nutritional value of foods, and contributes to
healthy life for present and future generations. Plant-based foods use fewer
natural resources and are less taxing on the environment. This means that vegetarian
diets are more sustainable than diets rich in animal products.

The study out of Loma Linda University Health compared and
contrasted the harmful emissions associated with various diets (meat-based,
semi-vegetarian, and vegetarian diets) of people across North America and also
assessed their mortality rates.

The Research: A Survey of Food

Sabaté and Soret were able to tap into the Adventist Health
Study 2, a large-scale study of the nutritional habits and practices of more
than 70,000 Seventh-day Adventists throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Participants in the study were given a food questionnaire that
listed 210 food items. Each participant was asked to select the frequency they
ate the foods listed. Some of the food items included in the questionnaire were
fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, oils, dairy, fish, eggs, meat, beverages,
and commercially prepared products such as dietary supplements, dry cereals,
and vegetarian protein products or vege-meat.

Three dietary patterns emerged from the results of the
questionnaire: vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, and non-vegetarians. Participants
who rarely or never ate meat were considered vegetarians.Participants who ate meat more than
once a month but less than once per week were classified as semi-vegetarians
and non-vegetarians consumed meats at least once a week.

More Research: The Life Cycle of Food

To assess the effects of the dietary patterns on global
warming, Soret and Sabaté followed the life cycles of various foods.

Each food type was measured for the intensity of green house
gases emitted during its production. Plant foods were measured from farm to
wholesaler; soy-based vegetarian meat and tofu were measured from farm to
factory; dairy and other processed products were measured from farm to the
point of purchase; beef, pork, and poultry were measured from farm to the final
meat producer; and hamburger meat was measured from farm to wholesaler.

The life cycle assessments were used to determine the annual
green house gas emissions contributed by each dietary pattern.

What Soret and Sabaté found was astounding. The emissions
produced by a vegetarian diet contributed roughly one third less than
non-vegetarian diets. Even semi-vegetarian diets contributed significantly less
than non-vegetarians.On top of
the diets effect on the environment, the study showed that non-vegetarians are
20 percent more likely to die sooner than vegetarians or semi-vegetarians.

The findings show that choosing to eat plant-based foods
instead of meat supports reductions in harmful green house gas emissions.Even reducing the amount of meat
consumed to that of a semi-vegetarian diet decreases harm to the environment
and increases health.

Forks Above Knives

Animal waste has become a public health problem and
environmental hazard. Annually, 7 billion livestock in the U.S. meat industry
generate 1.4 billion tons of waste.That translates into roughly 5 tons of waste for every U.S. citizen.
Imagine piles of waste roughly the size and mass of an adult elephant next to
every person in the country. Now imagine the animal waste leaking into our food
and water supplies. This represents a direct threat to human health.

A vegetarian diet in comparison to a meat-based diet is more
sustainable because it requires fewer natural resources and is less taxing on
the environment. Policy changes leading to the adoption of plant-based diets at
the global level will make the most of the food supply, health, environmental
and social justice outcomes for the world’s population.

At an individual level, a change of the magnitude suggested
above can be daunting.

As the old proverb goes, “For want of a nail the kingdom was
lost.” The smallest of actions sometimes lead to the direst of consequences. By
making the choice to eat a vegetarian diet, you are not only improving your
health but also reducing the demand for animal products. On the other hand, seemingly
insignificant choices by individuals can lead to world-changing results.

Let's make sure future generations never recite, “For want
of a T-bone steak the biosphere was lost.”

Related link

News article in Adventist Review: "Vegetarian Diet Is Effective Tool Against Climate Change, Study Finds"