The Food Initiative at Nurses Drawdown encourages nurses to promote plant-rich diets reduce emissions and also tend to be healthier, leading to lower rates of chronic disease. Sustainable agriculture practices support healthy soils, ecosystems, and food systems. Climate change creates threats to food quality, supply, and security around the world. In addition, our industrialized food systems, consumption patterns, and traditional cooking practices are a large contributor and driver of climate change. Solutions such as transitioning to plant-based diets, more sustainable food systems, and cleaning cooking practices are key to addressing climate change.
Consuming (and growing your own!) plant-rich diets is a Drawdown solution that reduces CO2 emissions while simultaneously offering health benefits for people (Project Drawdown, 2020a). Plant-rich diets are not strictly vegetarian or vegan diets. A plant-rich diet increases the amount of plant-based foods on a person’s plate while decreasing the amount of meat and animal products.
An individual-level shift to consuming plant-rich diets can have a significant global impact on the demand for meat-based protein. For example, a chicken has to eat two calories worth of grain to provide one calorie worth of poultry. This means that the chicken eats two calories of grains for every calorie of chicken that a person consumes. The ratio grows even larger for pigs and cattle. For every calorie of pork that a person consumes, a pig has consumed three calories of grains – and the ratio increases to 6:1 for cattle. The more calories we get from meat sources, the more plants we need to grow for the meat. This results in more land needed for agriculture, which further results in deforestation and loss of habitats and biodiversity (Gates, 2021).
Transitioning to plant-rich diets would decrease carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions due to changes in farming and land-use practices (less industrial livestock farming, more plant-based agriculture, less land needed for agriculture) and by keeping stored CO2 in the soil due to ecosystem protection (Project Drawdown, 2020b). This transition would also decrease methane emissions – which are 28 times more potent than CO2 – from raising fewer cattle. Moving to plant-rich diets can also help to decrease nitrous oxide emissions – which are 265 times more potent than CO2 – resulting from a reduction in animal excrement (Gates, 2021).a
According to the Project Drawdown (2020) solutions, three criteria must be met for the adoption of a plant-rich diet to be effective. The first criterion is that the average global citizen must adopt an individual daily caloric intake of 2250 Calories per day. Second, global citizens must reduce the consumption of meat-based protein, particularly red meat, which Drawdown suggests a limit of 57 grams per day. The third criterion is buying locally produced food when possible. The technical summary of this Drawdown solution suggests buying 5% of your food locally (Project Drawdown, 2020c).
If these three criteria are met, and 50% of the global population adopt plant-rich diets, global CO2 emissions can be reduced by 65.01 gigatons, from 2020 to 2050, which would keep the average increase in the global temperature at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. If 75% of the global population adopts a plant-rich diet, CO2 emissions are reduced by 91.72 gigatons. This level of CO2 emissions reduction can sustain the global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times (Project Drawdown, 2020c).
This solution is particularly relevant to nurses and healthcare because of the improved health outcomes and lower rates of chronic illness associated with plant-rich diets (Project Drawdown, 2020a). Diets with less meat and more fruits and vegetables decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other diseases (CAPE 2019, p. 3). Also, Drawdown estimates that $1 trillion in annual healthcare costs and lost productivity would be saved globally by reducing these illnesses (Project Drawdown, 2020a).
Nurses would help reduce healthcare system burden by promoting plant-rich diets and adopting such diets themselves. Plant-based foods are chock full of fibre, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, and complex carbohydrates, all of which promote good health and a healthy weight. Nurses improve human health and promote planetary health when they educate patients on the benefits of plant rich diets and recommend such diets to the populations they work with.
A shift to plant-rich diets would lower CO2 and methane emissions from industrialized farming practices that raise cattle, pork, and poultry. By shifting diets and eating lower on the food chain, we can help lower fertilizer inputs, land-clearing, and all associated emissions (Project Drawdown, 2020b). Plant-based food options are better for the environment because they use less land and water and contribute fewer emissions than meat and dairy (Gates, 2021).
This would in turn improve air quality by reducing methane emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone (CAPE, 2019, p. 2). Ground-level ozone is a highly irritating, colourless gas that forms when nitrogen oxides, or volatile organic compounds, react with the sun and stagnant air. Volatile organic compounds can have a significant impact on human health ranging from asthma symptoms to premature mortality (Government of Canada, 2016).
The fact that transitioning to plant-rich diets can reduce emissions while leading to a healthier population can be used as a powerful communication strategy and policy tool. People are more likely to respond positively to messaging that benefits their health, than to messaging solely about environmental impacts (Project Drawdown, 2020c).
Be a role model: shift to a plant-rich diet yourself. Share plant-based recipes with your friends, family, and co-workers. Have conversations about this topic with receptive friends, family, and co-workers.
Acknowledge that eating is personal and cultural (Project Drawdown, 2020a). Acknowledge that people don’t have to give up meat and dairy completely. Try eating less meat (meatless Mondays). Try not to buy meat at the grocery store. If becoming a vegan or vegetarian is not in the cards for you, then try being a flexitarian. A flexitarian diet is when a person eats mostly plant-based foods, but it is flexible and allows for the person to eat animal products in moderation.
Advocate to your local, provincial, and federal governments to stop subsidizing livestock, so that the prices in the stores represent their true cost (Project Drawdown, 2020a). Call and write letters to your city council members, your MLAs, and MPs.
Explore CANE’s work in these five key areas in support of this campaign:
Gates, B. (2021). How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. Random House.
Government of Canada. (2016). Common air pollutants: ground-level ozone.
Practice Green Health. (n.d.). Food: Improve the health of patients, staff, and the surrounding community by serving sustainable food. https://practicegreenhealth.org/topics/food
Project Drawdown. (2020a). Plant rich diets. https://drawdown.org/solutions/plant-rich-diets
Project Drawdown. (2020b). Food, Agriculture and Land Use. https://drawdown.org/sectors/food-agriculture-land-use
Project Drawdown. (2020c). Technical Summary. https://drawdown.org/solutions/plant-rich-diets/technical-summary