The Economic Costs of Going Vegetarian

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You’ve probably often been told to eat more vegetables and fruits, especially when you were a child at the dinner table. Aside from the nutrients and fiber that vegetables and fruits provide, there’s also another reason why we’re encouraged to load up more of them on your plate and grocery shopping cart: they are perceived to be far cheaper than meats and seafood.

But does going vegetarian or vegan really save you money in the long run? Whenever you’re mulling over a change in your diet, you might want to consider the surprising economics of going vegetarian and its impact on your finances:

Saving lives across the world

In 2016, Oxford University Researchers submitted a report to the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) journal, analyzing the value of a more plant-based diet in 2050 if the global population of seven billion and more from a future growing population adopted it.

They assessed four different scenarios where humans consume varying amounts of meat and measured the environmental, economic and health impact of these diets in each scenario. The first constructed scenario was based on a projection of diets in 2050, the second a scenario based on global dietary guidelines. The third and fourth scenarios were vegetarian diets, but one including eggs and dairy and the other completely plant-based or vegan.

The researchers first found that adoption of global dietary guidelines would result in 5.1 million avoided deaths in 2050, while a lacto-ovo vegetarian dietary shift across the world would avoid 7.3 million deaths and a completely plant-based vegan diet would save 8.1 million people from death. The cost of healthcare, informal care, lost working days and loss in productivity associated with these deaths amounted to savings of $973 billion for a largely global vegetarian diet while a vegan diet would incur savings of $1,067 billion in the year 2050. When the economic value of lost lives were taken into account, the savings increased to 28 trillion dollars and 30 trillion dollars for a vegetarian and vegan diet respectively.

“Putting a dollar value on good health and the environment is a sensitive issue,” wrote Dr Marco Springmann and one of the authors of the report, in a 2016 article for The Independent newspaper about their work. “However, our results indicate that dietary changes could have large benefits to society, and the value of those benefits makes a strong case for healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets.”

Their models and analyses also helped them to conclude that a healthy global diet, one that is based on global dietary guidelines on healthy eating could be achieved with a 25% increase in the number of fruits and vegetables consumed globally and a 56% reduction in red meat, as well as 15% lesser calories consumed by humans. That means that if you’re on your way to converting to veganism or vegetarianism, your current practice of eating more greens and less meat bodes well for your health.

A lighter grocery shopping load

Sure, the cost of kale and all the fruits and veggies that go in a single green smoothie may rival what you pay for two chicken fillets, but there are a variety of cheaper vegetables and non-meat foodstuffs that can fill you up more for much less and reduce your overall calorie consumption, like broccoli, celery and beans.

In 2015, researchers from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and the Miriam Hospital in the U.S compared the costs of a vegetarian diet and one that included meat. For comparison, they took the U.S Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recommended My Plate meal plan, which includes meat, and put it next to assessment with a plant-based meal plan that includes olive oil.

Published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, their findings showed that the seven-day meal plan including meat cost $53.11 each week and provided fewer servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, compared to the plant-based meal plan, which amounted to $38.75 in weekly expenses. In one year, the vegetarian diet would culminate in even larger savings up to $746.46!

So maybe you don’t care so much about the rest of the world and other countries’ consumption habits, but note that Singaporeans are at risk for diseases like heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer thanks to our obesity and bad diets, too. Singapore’s National Health Survey 2010 showed that 1 in 9 Singaporeans between 18 to 69 years of age is obese – a 57% increase from 2004.

“With a diet containing mostly refined carbohydrates and bad fats and oils with few fruit and vegetables, Singaporeans need to eat more healthily and reduce calorie intake to enjoy a better quality of life,” states the Health Promotion Board (HPB). As such, according to HPB’s recommended meal plan, My Healthy Plate, half your plate for a meal should be filled with fruits and vegetables, one-quarter should be reserved for whole grains and the remaining quarter can be reserved for meat and other foodstuffs, like nuts, eggs, bean and dairy products – all the better for at least reducing your consumption of meat and up your intake of fruits and vegetables.

Of course, even with all the economic benefits of going vegetarian or at least, eating more plants, the global economy would suffer if everyone just went vegetarian overnight, given that people all over the world also depend on livestock production and sales of animal products for a livelihood. But starting from you as an individual, you’re likely to cash in on changing or tweaking your diet to a greener one. Eventually, your body and wallet will thank you in the long run.

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