In Depth

What is flexitarianism?

New study says reducing amount of meat in our diets is key to cutting climate change

If you've noticed more vegetarian and vegan options creeping up in restaurant menus and supermarket shelves across Britain, you're not alone - meat-free meals are more mainstream than ever.

One in eight Britons now identifies as a vegetarian, and just over one in five identify as "flexitarian", or a part-time vegetarian, according to a recent survey.

The poll, carried out for Waitrose, suggests that one-third of the UK population have cut down their meat consumption or stopped eating it altogether.

“Searches for vegan and veggie barbecue recipes on waitrose.com rose by over 350% over the summer,” says the report.

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.

Those surveyed in the report cited a variety of reasons for making the diet change. More than half of respondents said they were motivated in part by animal-welfare concerns, while 45% said vegetarian meals were healthier and 38% cited environmental concerns.

“A widespread switch to vegetarianism would cut [greenhouse] emissions by nearly two thirds,” according to The Guardian.

So what is flexitarianism - and why is it becoming so popular?

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.

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 in October 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 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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