It’s the way to beat climate change, argues Dr Marco Springmann, James Martin fellow at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future Of Food.

What if we all turned vegan by 2050?

By Olivia Gordon

When we meet in the café at the Oxford Martin School, Dr Marco Springmann has just finished his teatime snack – a Tupperware box of bulgur wheat with mixed vegetables and kidney beans in a homemade peanut and chili sauce. ‘Clean eating’ may be fashionable these days, but veganism is still unusual in Britain. Meat-free and dairy-free meals aren’t readily available, so a vegan has to plan ahead and carry around food prepared at home.

Dr Springmann’s research as a James Martin fellow at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future Of Food made the news recently when he proposed, effectively, a tax on animal products. His was the first global analysis to estimate what effect ‘emissions pricing’ would have on foods that cause high greenhouse gas emissions. If the cost of climate damages associated with the greenhouse gas emissions of foods were integrated into the price of food, beef would be 40 per cent more expensive, and milk and other meats would cost 20 per cent more. Springmann and his team estimated that such price rises would result in a 10 per cent drop in people eating high-emissions foods. ‘If you’d have to pay 40 per cent more for your steak, you might choose to have it once a week instead of twice,’ he said at the time.

If the world adopted a vegan diet in the year 2050, in that single year it could cut greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, save $1.5trillion in climate damages and healthcare-related expenditure, and reduce global mortality by 10 per cent, which means eight fewer million deaths from chronic diseases. All this is according to Springmann’s research modelling — and he says these figures are conservative and probably an under-estimate. A broadly healthier global diet that conformed to basic dietary recommendations could save five million lives; a vegetarian diet could save seven million lives; but a vegan diet would have the greatest impact.

What if we all turned vegan by 2050?‘The fact that our research has attracted a lot of media attention shows that people are interested in this kind of research,’ he says. ‘People’s attitudes and views on the impacts that our diets have on health and the environment are changing.’

The 34-year-old stresses: ‘I don’t see myself as somebody who prescribes what people should eat. I just want to make people aware of what impact such a personal act of eating has on the world.’

In his own case, it seemed a no-brainer to become a vegan ten years ago, when he realised that it is demonstrably healthier and better for the planet. Having grown up in Germany, Springmann had always been vaguely aware that some foods were healthier than others, but then, while doing his PhD in Physics in the United States, he chanced across scientific research on the health implications of plant-based diets.

The evidence was strong enough to convince him to make the change himself – and having become a vegan, he started to research the subject in his own work. He remembers: ‘I had to restructure the way I bought; the way I ate. Every day I was in the kitchen experimenting with different dishes. It was great.’ He has not missed meat and dairy products. ‘There was never a question for me of ever eating differently again,’ he says. ‘I’m a researcher. If you give me some good studies, I try to change my behaviour based on it.’

Springmann doesn’t have a television set and hasn’t heard of the ‘clean eating’ fad – for him, veganism is about a simple diet that is ‘accessible and affordable’.  He says:  ‘Everyone can eat this way. I don’t want to be a person who goes only into vegan supermarkets and buys raw olive bread for £8.’

According to the latest meta-analysis by Imperial College, London, we all need to eat ten portions of fruit and vegetables daily to prevent premature death. Oxford research has found that vegetarians usually eat around one to two servings of fruit and veg a day more than meat-eaters, and vegans another one more. ‘Red meat is very unhealthy. It’s associated with heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes, and a carcinogen if consumed in processed form,’ says Springmann.

‘It’s very bad for the environment too,’ he adds. Meat production is responsible for the greatest portion of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, similar in scale to that of transport. Most of those emissions are caused by the methane that cows produce and by the industrial growth of animal feed, which drives encroachment of agricultural land into formerly forested areas.

What if we all turned vegan by 2050?

Springmann’s projections show that the greenhouse gas emissions from food production, coupled with population growth and the aspiration in developing countries to consume similar meat-heavy diets as in the UK or the US, could make it very hard to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius. Things cannot stay the same, Springmann says. ‘We have to change our diet and decrease our portion of meats like beef and lamb.’

What would he like to see? ‘It would make sense to offer as standard a plant-based option in restaurants and train stations, to make it easy for people to eat that way. A lot of people argue for marginal changes – half a portion of meat instead of a whole one. That’s great, but why not go all the way? Making a vegan option the default would, in most cases, be healthier and more sustainable, and it would send a strong message of change.’ Supermarkets could do more to promote plant-based diets, too. And, of course, he suggests that food prices should reflect the food’s health and environmental impacts.

If we all turned vegan, it would be a paradigm shift, he acknowledges. ‘Meat has always been an integral part of society, associated with power and masculinity.’ Men, in particular, he feels, when confronted with veganism, ‘feel strangely aggressive about it; feel almost personally attacked. So it’s particularly the men that need some extra education on that issue, and maybe some reassurance that their masculinity won’t be taken away by eating less flesh and more carrots.’ If we do it right, he says, eating meat could one day become as frowned upon as smoking.

As for Oxford, Springmann would like to see local changes. ‘I’m always shocked at how traditional most colleges and canteens are when it comes to food,’ he says, of the classic red meat-based dinners and formal halls. ‘Let’s make Oxford more plant-based!’

Oxford’s vegan hotspots

  • Linacre College – the canteen ‘has a good vegan option,’ says Springmann.
  • Gloucester Green market on a Wednesday offers plenty of fruit and veg – ‘a basket of avocados only costs £1.50,’ says Dr Maja Zaloznik, a fellow at the Future of Food programme.
  • The Isis Farmhouse, Iffley Lock – ‘good vegan soup,’ says Springmann.
  • The Magic Café, a vegan and vegetarian café at 110 Magdalen Road.
  • The Gardeners Arms, 9 Plantation Road – a vegan and vegetarian pub.
  • ‘Asian restaurants in general’, Springmann says.
  • Wild Honey health food shops (111 Magdalen Road and 12 South Parade).
  • ‘Your own kitchen,’ says Springmann. ‘Be creative and colourful.’
  • The first Oxford Vegan festival takes place on 25 March at the Kassam Stadium.

The Future of Food Programme

Dairy cows photographed for Shutterstock. Vegan food by Anna_Pustynnikova via Shutterstock. Portrait courtesy of Dr Marco Springmann.


By Dr Andrew Johnson

Fantastic - I shall try to move towards this. Now what about thinking of undertaking academic travel (e.g. to conferences) by greener means? I haven't been on a plane since 2007, but have seen a lot more of the world, and met some interesting people, through travel by container ship, train and bike.

By John Borgars

Since arable land is only a fraction of farmland, everyone suddenly adopting a vegan diet would solve the climate change problem through 5 billion or so starving to death.

By Nel

Hmmm.... Doesn't want to dictate what people should eat, but does want to tax people into being forced to eat the way he wants them to eat. Fascist much?

I'm a vegan, but I absolutely respect anyone else's right to eat whatever he wants. I believe in educating people to know how healthy one can become eating a vegan diet (I'm a great fan of Dr Joel Fuhrman's 'nutritarian' approach, which converted me from vegetarian to vegan; I gave up meat originally when I was simply too poor to afford it and found I could survive without it). It makes me sad to see people eating stuff that I know is likely making and/or keeping them unwell. But I'm not going to go on a campaign unless someone asks me, 'How do you eat that way?' or 'How come you never get sick?' Then I'll let them know. Or if they are complaining of chronic health problems - or challenging me on the 'weird' stuff I eat - I'll give them some facts.

But I don't believe in the government stepping in to 'force' people through taxation into behaving in certain ways. I don't believe in taxing alcohol or cigarettes, either - the 'tax' for using those things is bad health. And I don't believe in reducing all our problems to either finances (sick people cost society more and should be eliminated one way or another) or the environment.

Encouraging people to drive less and walk more would do a lot of good for both health and the environment without everyone having to convert to veganism. But education is the way to change people's minds, not force - including the force of heavy taxes.

By John Nightingale

Are the College kitchens offering vegan options?

By Frank Robinson

What if volcanoes could be stopped spewing greenhouse gases?

By David

In the meantime before we all go vegan, use bison - I believe a media mogul in the U.S.A. has exchanged his herds of cattle for bison as they are not ruminants and do not give off much methane. But what about fish surely a good source of protein and presumably wild ones are not a source of warming gases.

By Martin Henig

Not only is this good for the planet, but the cruelty inflicted on sentient creatures, especially by commercial farming, but by any form of animal husbandry should worry our consciences now we know so much more about animal sentience. I find myself increasingly concerned about cruelty both to animals and to humans in today's world both as a Fellow of the Centre for Animal Ethics and as an Anglican priest, and feel sure that if we do not adopt a gentler way of living we will contribute to the destruction of our species.

By Roderick Leslie

Two rather different messages have got mixed up here.

The first, about how we do agriculture is crucial. In suggesting a tax on meat Marco could equally suggest the removal of huge subsidies - in Europe and North America both direct payments to farmers and the massive effective subsidy - and climate impact - of fossil fuels. Our farming runs on artificial nitrogen captured from the air at spectacular energy cost. All this becomes highly relevant in a UK where farming support is up for grabs for the first time since 1947. The NFU claim is that as we produce only 60% of our food needs we must further support and intensify farming, regardless of collateral damage to water quality, flooding, wildlife, soils and GHG emissions. But what it ignores - as Marco is pointing out - is that a high proportion of our grain goes into animal feed, reducing its nutritional value by 4-10 times as well as promoting a diet making more and more of us ill. The reality is in terms of healthy nutrition for the nation we could produce everything we need - including a reasonable content of meat and fish and exactly the same applies globally where food shortages are predicated on the 'on demand' rise in meat consumption.

Veganism is another issue - large parts of the world's farmable land - including the west and uplands of the UK - are better suited to producing food from grass via animals, whilst Dieter Helm's Natural Capital Committee has shown how we could dramatically increase our sustainable fish supply through proper management.

By Tim

It's a matter of perception and presentation.

You won't ever persuade a bloke to "go vegan", because the terms "vegan" and "vegetarian" are defined by negativity and ideology - like joining a cult. You certainly won't persuade someone by telling them they need educated, whether it's true that conveying information is required or not.

However, let the information and positives shine, and things might happen .The term "plant-based" is creeping into the collective consciousness; if you can avoid people thinking it's just a back-door for veganism and actually concentrate on avoiding metabolic syndrome by choosing a better blend of carbs and fibre to suit one's digestion, that just happens to arise from more plants in one's diet, then the fact it *is* leaning toward vegan is less of a problem. If you can do it by making all the vegan options on the restaurant menu look appetizing, even better. Chefs, be proud - it'll show.

As such, I think I'm in favour of taxing at source according to emission - carbon-tax if you like. It won't stop me eating the occasional lasagna but at least the immediate personal cost will more accurately reflect the global, especially environmental, cost. That's fine by me.

By Kievian

"Going vegan" is not a simple choice but requires, it is said, a deep understanding of nutrition. Of one sample population of vegans 56% were found to have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Primates living in social groups in a large forest have access to a large and varied supply of edible material. Fruit, leaves, nuts, seeds, insects and occasional small animals are good sources of all the nutrients they require. At an earlier epoch their ancestors would have lived in a more impoverished nutritional environment and would have had to synthesise, or rely on bacteria in their gut to synthesise for them, many micronutrients, especially vitamins and some of the amino acids necessary for protein synthesis.
As the variety of nutrients abundant in readily available foodstuffs increases many of the nutrients which they used to have to make for themselves are now available from their diet and they progressively lose the ability to make them, as a consequence of random mutations, because there is no longer any selective pressure to retain the capability.
Having been lost, however, the chance of future mutations correcting the damage is virtually zero, so a species will be for ever dependent on its diet for the nutrients it can no longer synthesize for itself. These then become “essential nutrients” for that species.People who find attraction in the idea of a return to a simpler, more primitive diet should realise that, at that period, Man was adapted to the foods that were available and retained the capacity to synthesise many key nutrients for himself. A modern omnivorous diet provides many of these essential nutrients and, inevitably, we have now irrevocably lost the capacity to make them for ourselves and have become, to a greater extent than ever before, dependent on the foods we eat to provide essential nutrients.
Effectively we are outsourcing our supplies of essential nutrients because it is cheaper in terms of the body’s need to maintain the genetic capital and provide the operating costs of raw materials and transport systems, all rarely, if ever, needed.

As soon as we lose the capacity to make a critical nutrient we become absolutely dependent on our diet to provide it in sufficient quantities. The growing dependence on outsourcing as our diet becomes richer and more varied is irreversible because it would require new mutations that exactly reversed earlier mutations. This is theoretically not impossible but would take millions of years to occur, during which we would have to survive without an essential nutrient while waiting for new mutations to reactivate a lost process.
Be careful when you advise people to become vegan dietary deficiencies do not usualy advertise themselves but their effects are insidious and debilitating.

By Dr Charles Griffin

What about the possibility of 'growing' meat genetically, initially in the laboratory but then in factories, without having to get it by breeding, and then killing, farting cattle and sheep? I read about this possibility somewhere recently, but can't remember where.

By Anonymous

John Borgars, I guess you forgot that most farm animals eat food-competing feedstuffs too at the moment and that this is not resource-efficient.

"Currently, 36% of the calories produced by the world's crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet (as meat and other animal products)"

"On a global scale, about 40% of the global crop calories are used as livestock feed (we refer to this ratio as crop balance for livestock) and about 4 kcal of crop products are used to generate 1 kcal of animal products (embodied crop calories of around 4)"

"We find that, given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people (more than the projected 2–3 billion people arriving through population growth)"

By Anthony Stewart

Not yet convinced...
Humanity has a fairly frequent habit of saying things like (I have the solution) only then to implement a solution to later realized disastrous results. Even with honestly good intentions....
So we ALL swear off meat... okay. Where and how do we feed the 8bil people? Where and how do we grow enough protein laden crops to replace the diet of that many people? Education is lacking, everywhere--absolutely in the US--so we need to also get that out there...
And what about the animals that we are now no longer raising for food? The special breed cattle, chickens and so on? Do we let them die out? They no longer have natural habitat--except buffalo (sort of)--so where do they live? In what quantities?
I just don't think we're ready... and I don't think we'll be ready by 2050...

By Jonathan Lodge

Such ill considered articels as this should never be published. The food chain developed the way it did because that is what it takes to be sustainable. To expect us to become vegan is lunacy. The majority of Vegans are Vitamin B deficient. We regularly hear talk of culling deer - this is only needed because their natural predators have declined. Personally I hate the term culling - we should be harvesting a naturally abundant source of food. Deer, sheep and goats digest vegetation we cannot hope to. In responsible agriculture they can control vegetation and enhance soil structure for crops we can digest whilst providing a sustainable source of meat. Modern agriculture and especially cereal crops are anything but sustainable. No Till cultivation has proved to be far better than constant ploughing - and improved enormously by returning animals to a decent crop rotation. What we need is sustainable agriculture rather than demands to swap one extreme for an equally damaging extreme.

By Paul Schjetnan

Like most arguments, there are two sides and the truth is likely somewhere in between. Fruit, grain, and vegetable growing require tillage, usually intensive fertilizer/pesticide/herbicide use, and large amounts of diesel. Soil erosion is a concern as well. Pastures and prairies are perennial and low maintenance. They hold immense ecological and restorative value (read work by Allan Savory, among others). Pasture-raised ruminant meats and dairy, in moderation, do provide valuable nutritional benefits that are hard to get through a purely plant-based diet. As to methane 'farts', new research has found that feeding seaweed to ruminants, which can also be harvested sustainability, greatly reduces methane excretions. As a society, we need to demand that grain subsidies be ended, so that meat and dairy are raised more on pasture and become much more expensive. Then we can begin shifting the culture around meat and dairy to one of appreciation and moderation, especially in the developed world. The tillage of prairies and pastures for annual crops has been a significant contributor to atmospheric CO2 levels.

By Tim Roberts

It's remarkable how implausible and impractical so many proposed solutions to 'global warming' are. Certainly, the climate is changing - but not very fast - nothing like as fast as the computer models suggest. A rational response to the agreed science would be to work on problems we have now (hunger, drought, sea level rise, and so on) - and which are feared may get worse. Investment on these would not be wasted, even if warming were less than some expect.

By ewa

Nel, i am unhappy that i am force to pay taxes that are used for stuff i completely disagree with... like military for a start, or countless unnecessary operations like by-passes cos people can't be responsible and eat a plant based diet and exercise more....

By Rene

I adopted a Vegan lifestyle 15 years ago. Never looked back. Easy.

By Kirsten L McCulloch

Thank you for this great article. It is approachable and sensible. It is time for the stigma and negativity towards vegan/vegetarianism to end. The term plant-based is accurate and most certainly gaining momentum in conventional society. I am proud to be caring for the planet and her creatures by eating a plant based diet! Thank you for your great work.