Author: Lino Wirag | Category: Food and Drink | 28.10.2023

Plant-based diet: What the change can save – in money, CO2 and animal lives

Photo: Shutterstock/Foxys Forest Manufacture

If you eat fewer animal products, you are not only doing something for animal welfare, but also for the climate. Your own wallet often benefits too. We checked whether the personal switch to a plant-based diet can also be expressed in concrete figures. Short answer: Yes, it is possible.

Why should you eat a plant-based diet at all – or at least a more plant-based diet than before? There are various arguments for this.

1. The most frequently cited reason is probably this: those who eat less meat, fish and other animal products, avoids animal suffering, that goes hand in hand with rearing, keeping, transporting and slaughtering. This argument is widely accepted. Especially since there is no scientific doubt that at least mammals and birds – including pigs, cattle and chickens, which are most often on our menu – have a very similar nervous system to that of humans.

Therefore, our livestock and slaughter animals experience the often undignified conditions associated with factory farming (cramped conditions, lack of exercise, light and air, etc.) in a similar way to how a human being in a comparable situation would experience them.

Eating more plant-based foods protects the climate

2. A second argument that has become increasingly important in recent years: Animal products have a much greater impact on the climate than plant-based. The reason is easy to understand: if we simply eat vegetables, grains, fruits or mushrooms ourselves, we can process the nutrients they contain directly.

However, if we first feed such agricultural products to animals in order to obtain meat and milk, there are significant additional costs. These are not only financial in nature, but the climate is also subjected to a much greater burden in order to obtain the same nutrients – now animal and no longer plant-based – from the same “raw materials”. In the case of cattle, there are also effects such as rumination, which is responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

3. The third argument in favor of a plant-based diet is more controversial, but cannot be completely dismissed: Some animal products are relatively expensivesuch as butter and beef. Our daily nutritional needs can be covered almost as well if we use plant-based products, some of which cost significantly less.

Plant-based diet: What speaks for it

4. Further arguments for a diet that relies more on plants than on animals, other negative consequences for the environment, health and climate are related to industrial factory farming.

These include: land use, groundwater pollution by nitrate from manure, increasing antibiotic resistance, loss of biodiversity, higher pandemic risks, water consumption or systemically inherent overproduction, which is accompanied by food waste.

Meat substitutes can also be part of a plant-based diet. However, they hardly save you any money.

Meat substitutes can also be part of a plant-based diet. However, they hardly save you any money. (Photo: Shutterstock/Antonina Vlasova)

In order to support the above arguments with some figures, we would like to present in this article Calculate what a single person can theoretically savewho switches from an average to a plant-based diet, i.e. from an omnivore to a vegan (in terms of diet, not the entire lifestyle). These are the facts:

This is how much CO2 is saved by a plant-based diet

Greenhouse gases: For our calculations, we assume a person with fairly average biographical data (female, 30 to 60 years old, 72 kg body weight, sedentary job). If this person eats (or at least buys) as much meat, fish and sausage as the average person does, that adds up to 1.3 kg of meat products per week. In addition, there are numerous dairy products, namely an average of 1.6 liters of milk, 250 grams of butter and 550 grams of cheese.

Based on this data, the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) calculates an annual CO₂ emission of 1.75 tons, which is related to the diet. If the same person were to theoretically completely avoid dairy products, meat, fish, etc., the associated CO₂ value would fall to 0.76 tons per year, according to the agency’s calculations.

Easy to see: The difference between a plant-based and a conventional “mixed” diet is almost exactly one tonne of greenhouse gases per year. Since a German is currently responsible for around 10.4 tons of CO₂ per year, a plant-based diet would reduce personal CO₂-Budget can be reduced by almost 10 percent in this way.

Plant-based nutrition protects animal life

Animal life: In order to produce animal products, animals must be born and slaughtered – this is undisputed. If we take the amount of meat that an average consumer eats in a year as a basis, we can deduce how many animal lives a conventional diet “consumes” over the course of twelve months.

On this basis, one can assume that the average eater, which we have already assumed above, in this country on average seven chickens, a quarter to a third of pork as well as one fortieth of a cow per year. In other words, this number of animals must be slaughtered each year to maintain an adequate diet.

Animal life: Don’t forget milk and eggs

In addition, there are those animals that are bred and slaughtered for our milk and egg production (as soon as they no longer fulfil the corresponding function), i.e. chickens and cows.

Regarding chickens: On average, a German consumes around 240 eggs a year, and a laying hen can lay an average of 300 eggs in its lifetime. This means that for a diet that relies on animal products, you have to add almost a complete chicken life to the annual average “consumption” in order to reflect your own egg consumption. Instead of seven, this would result in around eight “consumed” chicken lives.

The balance is somewhat different for cows: A dairy cow produces roughly 25,000 liters of milk in its lifetime; however, a German only consumes an estimated 200 liters of this (in the form of fresh milk, yoghurt, cheese, processed as milk powder in products, etc.) per year. This corresponds – if you want to put it that way – to 125th of a “cow’s life” that is “used up” each year on an average diet in order to be able to consume milk and dairy products.

Consider food losses

Another thing to consider: Since surpluses and miscalculations occur in agriculture, factories, supermarkets and even in the home kitchen, large quantities of food are regularly thrown away. Estimates of how much food ends up in the trash between the field and the plate vary, but 20 percent is lost or wasted.

Anyone who regularly consumes animal products must take into account that This twenty percent loss almost inevitably also occurs in one’s own consumption. Therefore, they must be added to the number of animals slaughtered for personal consumption. In terms of poultry, this increases the number of chicken lives to 9.5.

Does a plant-based diet save money?

Finance: While the figures given for animal life and the climate are largely undisputed, the financial aspect is a little different. Of course, you can spend a lot or a little money on a plant-based diet or any other diet. It simply depends on which food you buy and where: after all, your nutritional needs can be met just as easily from your own garden as from a fancy restaurant.

However, this does not mean that no research has been carried out on this topic so far:

  • Studies from 2012 (from the University of Lancaster) and 2015 (from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) estimate that a plant-based diet saves between 10 and 14 percent on food costs.
  • A US study by Oklahoma State University in 2016 showed that consumers who follow a vegetarian diet, on average, reported lower food spending as an omnivore.
  • In a study by the University of Oxford, which was published in “Lancet” in 2021, the authors calculated that a purely plant-based diet in high-income countries (including Germany) on average 27 to 34 percent cheaper than the average diet.
  • A study from Portugal in 2022 concluded that consumers who followed a plant-based diet spend less on food than all other groups studied.
  • A cost study by the Research Institute for Plant-Based Nutrition (IFPE), published in late 2022 and comparing meat dishes with equivalent vegan alternatives, concluded that Plant-based dishes 10 percent (conventional) or 32 percent (organic) cheaper were.

Although the individual figures vary considerably, all studies show that a plant-based diet is almost always cheaper than one that includes meat and fish. This is also supported by the obvious fact that it costs less to obtain nutrients for human needs directly from vegetables, fruit or pulses, rather than first feeding them to animals (and then extracting the necessary nutrients from the animals).

Statistically, a German one-person household spent around 220 euros per month on food and beverages in 2021; adjusted for inflation, the figure should now be 245 euros (= around 2,950 euros per year). If one plausibly assumes that a plant-based diet at least ten percent cheaper is considered an omnivore, this means that a person on a vegan diet saves at least 295 euros per year.