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What is flexitarianism?

The Week logo The Week 11/10/2018 Gabriel Power
a plate of food © Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited

Scientists are urging consumers to cut down on the amount of meat they eat amid growing fears about the environmental effects of global food production.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, an estimated 14.5% of human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by livestock. And with the world’s population expected to continue growing throughout the 21st century, demand for meat will increase unless we drastically change our diets. 

But there’s good news for environmentally conscious meat-lovers: you don’t have to go cold turkey. Enter “flexitarianism”.

What is flexitarianism?

Also known as casual vegetarianism, the term was originally coined for part-time veggies who follow a mostly plant-based diet with the occasional helping of white meat for variety or for convenience when eating out. An estimated 22 million Britons currently identify as flexitarians, reports the London Evening Standard. 

Along with offering potential health benefits, experts say flexitarianism may help stave off rising global temperatures.

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How so?

According to estimates published by The Daily Telegraph, for every 1kg of lamb produced, 33.06kg of carbon dioxide is emitted, while 1kg of beef produces 32.49kg of CO2. Meanwhile, latest figures show that the world’s meat production was an estimated 317 million metric tons in 2016.

But a report published on Wednesday in the journal Nature says that if everyone adopted flexitarian diets, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could be reduced by more than half.

As it stands, the forecasts are bleak. The new report states that the world’s population is set to hit ten billion by the middle of this century, which could see the environmental costs of the food production system exceed so-called planetary boundaries - the level at which human action could make the Earth’s ecosystem unstable.

"Without concerted action, we found that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50% to 90% by 2050 as a result of population growth and the rise of diets high in fats, sugars and meat,” said study co-author Dr Marco Springmann, from Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Population Health.

What do flexitarians eat?

Flexitarians can eat a wide range of foods but the main aim is that they are all relatively plant-based, says Springmann.

Some people might choose to have a meat-free Monday, for example, while others limit red meat to once a week or simply opt for more vegetarian meals.

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