The Buddha, Confucius, and Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci and Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi and Guadi. Percy Bysshe Shelly and George Bernard Shaw. Plant-based diets have had no shortage of notable champions, long before omnivore Michael Pollan famously simplified the conundrum of eating: “East food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” “Mostly plants” is the key, although some argue all. Shifting to a diet rich in plants is a demand-side solution to global warming that runs counter to the meat-centric, highly processed, often-excessive Western diet broadly on the rise today.

That Western diet comes with a steep climate price tag. The most conservative estimates suggest that raising livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gases emitted each year; the most comprehensive assessments of direct and indirect emissions say more than 50 percent. […]

Overconsumption of animal protein also comes at a steep cost to human health. In many places around the world, the protein eaten daily goes well beyond dietary requirements.

Where plant-based protein is abundant, human beings do not need animal protein for its nutrients (aside from vitamin B12 in strict vegan diets), and eating too much of it can lead to certain cancers, strokes, and heart disease. Increased morbidity and health-care costs go hand in hand.


The case for a plant-rich diet is robust. That said, bringing about profound dietary change is not simple because eating is profoundly personal and cultural. Meat is laden with meaning, blended into customs, and appealing to taste buds. The complex and ingrained nature of people’s relationship with eating animal protein necessitates artful strategies for shifting demand. For individuals to give up meat in favor of options lower on the food chain, those options should be available, visible, and tempting. Meat substitutes made from plants are a key way to minimize disruption of established ways of cooking and eating, mimicking the flavor, texture, and aroma of animal protein and even replicating its amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, and trace minerals. With nutritious alternatives that appeal to meat-centric palates and practices, companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Food are actively leading that charge, proving that it is possible to swap out proteins in painless and pleasure ways. Select plant-based alternatives are now making their way into grocery store meat cases, a market evolution that can interrupt habitual behaviors around food. Between rapidly improving products, research at top universities, venture capital investment, and mounting consumer interest, experts expect markets for nonmeats to grow rapidly.


In addition to meat imitation, the celebration of vegetables, the celebration of vegetables, grains, and pulses in the their natural form can update norms around these foods, elevating them to main acts in their own right, as opposed to sideshows. Omnivorous chefs are making the case for eating widely and with pleasure without meat. They include Mark Bittman, journalist and author of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and Yotam Ottolenghi, restaurateur and author of Plenty. Initiatives such as Meatless Monday and VB6 (vegan before six p.m.), as well as stories that highlight athletic heroes who eat plant-based diets (such as Tom Brady of the New England Patriots), are helping to shift biases around reduced meat consumption. Debunking protein myths and amplifying the health benefits of plant-rich diets can also encourage individuals to change their eating patterns. Instead of being the exception, vegetarian options should become the norm, especially at public institutions such as schools and hospitals.

Beyond promoting “reducetarianism,” if not vegetarianism, it is also necessary to reframe meat as a delicacy, rather than a staple. First and foremost, that means ending price-distorting governments subsidies, such as those benefiting the U.S. livestock industry, so that the wholesale and resale prices of animal protein more accurately reflect their true cost.


IMPACT: Using country-level data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we estimate the growth in global food consumption by 2050, assuming the lower-income countries will consume more food overall and higher quantities of meat as economies grow. If 50 percent of the world’s population restricts their diet to a healthy 2,500 calories per day and reduces meat consumption overall, we estimate at least 26.7 gigatons of emission could be avoided from dietary changes alone. If avoided deforestation from land use change is included, an additional 39.3 gigatons of emissions could be avoided, making healthy, plant-rich diets once of the most impactful solutions at a total of 66 gigatons reduced.



March 2024 Update:

Introduction to Project Drawdown

Project Drawdown is a nonprofit organization that seeks to help the world reach “Drawdown” – the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline, thereby stopping catastrophic climate change.

Founded in 2014, Project Drawdown has emerged as a leading resource for information and insight about climate solutions. The organization has conducted rigorous research and assessment of a comprehensive set of 93 climate solutions, which it has compiled into the Drawdown framework.

The Drawdown framework covers a wide range of solutions across different sectors, including:

– Electricity generation (e.g. renewable energy, energy efficiency)
– Food, agriculture, and land use (e.g. reduced food waste, plant-rich diets, reforestation)
– Industry (e.g. alternative refrigerants, cement production improvements)
– Transportation (e.g. electric vehicles, public transit, high-speed rail)
– Buildings (e.g. energy efficiency, heat pumps, smart thermostats)
– Land and coastal/ocean sinks (e.g. forest restoration, mangrove protection)

Project Drawdown’s mission is to advance these effective, science-based climate solutions and strategies, foster bold new climate leadership, and promote new narratives and voices around climate change.  The organization aims to support a growing constellation of efforts to move climate solutions forward and reach Drawdown as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible.

Through its research, communication, and partnerships, Project Drawdown has influenced university curricula, city climate plans, business commitments, community action, and philanthropic strategy around the world. The organization continues to develop its resources and work to accelerate the deployment of climate solutions globally.