There is a practical problem with changing global diets: the cost of eating sustainably varies considerably depending on where you live. In fact, eating green may be unaffordable in some poorer countries, while elsewhere it remains relatively cheap.
However, we may be able to equalize this regional cost difference if we reduce food waste and factor in environmental and health impacts in the cost of food, a Planet Health Lancet study suggests.
The data is now clear on the environmental benefits of plant-based diets. But the authors of the analysis say that until now, research has been less clear on the global affordability of eating vegan and vegetarian food. Also, when studies have explored the costs of greener diets, they have generally done so in wealthier Western countries, limiting the relevance of their findings.
All of this suggests that we need a clearer picture of how cost influences sustainable eating and whether it might be an impediment to adopting greener diets.
To provide a more global view, the authors compared the cost of following four sustainable diets (flexitarian, pescetarian, vegetarian and vegan) in 150 countries. They focused especially on 463 primary foods that reflect the wide spectrum of consumption patterns across all regions for these four types of diet. This allowed them to compare national differences in the costs of eating a planet-conscious diet at a granular level.
That comparison immediately revealed regional discrepancies. In higher-income countries, it is 22-34% cheaper to eat sustainably than to follow a diet that remains meat-centric. But take that to low-income countries and all of a sudden it becomes 29% more expensive eat sustainably than eating a conventional diet. In fact, in high-income countries, nearly all four sustainable diets were cheaper than the norm, but this pattern was not mirrored in poorer nations.
This regional variability boils down to a complex interaction of factors that can shape the availability of individual foods. Weather fluctuations, food trade dynamics, and local market conditions can combine to make a product, like tomatoes, abundant and cheap in one place, but less common and much more expensive elsewhere.
But the researchers offer two suggestions for how we can address this global price divide. First, they say that we can significantly reduce the costs of diets through a tool that we already have at our fingertips: reducing food waste. Limiting the amount of food lost to waste could lead to cost savings of up to 20% on average across countries and income regions, making sustainable food more affordable, they calculated in their model.
Second, they suggest that we can increase the relative affordability of sustainable diets by making conventional diets reflect their true environmental and health costs. Meat, in particular, leaves a huge environmental footprint and contributes to health problems for millions of people each year, requiring expensive national healthcare. If meat-centric diets were to internalize these costs in their prices, then in all countries sustainable diets (except the pescatarian option) would be comparatively cheaper. In fact, they would cost up to 19% less than conventional meat-centric diets.
If countries combined these measures, by 2050 we could reduce the costs of sustainable diets in 145 of the 150 countries included in the model, the researchers found. They also point out that under these measures, the most affordable diets were vegetarian and vegan, especially those that were richer in whole grains and legumes.
Eating sustainably is currently inaccessible to millions around the world. But with sensible policymaking, we could make plant-based diets “the least expensive option in most countries in the future,” the researchers believe.
Webb, et. Alabama. “The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modeling study”. The Planetary Health Spear. 2021.
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