It’s the way to beat climate change, argues Dr Marco Springmann, James Martin fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Food Programme.
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 Oxford University’s Future of Food Programme 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.
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.
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.
Dairy cows photographed for Shutterstock. Vegan food by Anna_Pustynnikova via Shutterstock. Portrait courtesy of Dr Marco Springmann.