Healthy And Sustainable Diets: Cost Differences Between Countries
A global shift in food consumption toward diets composed of high nutritional value plant-based foods and very few animal products, could greatly reduce the environmental stress of the food system and improve public health. But several factors can hinder the adoption of such diets. This study focused on one of them: cost. In it, the authors used models to estimate the cost of different healthy and sustainable diets in 150 countries around the world. For each country, they compared typical diets to four alternative diets: flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan.
In order to do this, they estimated each country’s typical diet by looking at the food available for consumption in each country, with data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Then, they estimated the cost of each diet using food prices with data reported by the International Comparison Program from 2017. They adjusted their estimates by taking into account calories, and for each diet, they added the cost of food waste to get a more realistic estimate.
In addition, they separately estimated two external costs: one related to climate change and the other to human health. The authors also examined how costs would change in the future based on trends in population growth, rising or falling incomes, and whether or not food waste was reduced.
In their results, the authors differentiated countries by income. They distinguished the countries into four categories: low-income, lower-middle-income, upper-middle-income, and high-income.
In 2017, the average cost of typical diets in the 150 countries was $5.7 per person, per day. The lowest average cost was in low-income countries at $3.7 and the highest average cost was in upper-middle-income countries at $7.5. Staple crops represented the largest proportion of costs in low-income and lower-middle-income countries at 33 to 35%, while in high-income and upper-middle-income countries, meat represented the largest proportion of costs with 32 to 34%.
In high-income and upper-middle-income countries, flexitarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets were less expensive than the typical diet (the reduction ranged from 12 to 34%). In these countries, the pescatarian diet was about as expensive. In contrast, in lower-middle-income and low-income countries, all alternative diets were more expensive than the typical diet (the increase ranged from 18 to 45%).
Additionally, the study found that food waste accounted for an average of 29% of the cost of typical diets. This cost was higher in high-income countries (35%) than in low-income countries (17%). By cutting food waste in half, the price would decrease by an average of 14% for typical diets and 3 to 20% for alternative diets.
If the external costs of climate change and health care were taken into account, this would increase the total cost of typical diets by an average of 12% and 4% respectively. In 2050, the increase would be 42% for climate change and 9% for health care. Both in 2017 and in 2050, the external costs of the flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets were lower than those of typical diets.
The authors then projected the global adoption of the flexitarian diet in 2050. If economic development is high, food waste is reduced, and external costs are taken into account, its adoption would be less costly than typical diets in almost every country studied.
This study suggested that the adoption of predominantly plant-based diets would reduce the cost of diets in middle-income and high-income countries. In addition, it would reduce pressure on the climate and improve human health. Thus, cost is not a factor that should slow the adoption of a plant-based diet in these countries.
Interventions should be put in place to encourage people to adopt such diets. The authors proposed several measures: using tax revenues to support low-income households, increasing food availability and accessibility, and conducting information campaigns.
For low-income countries, changing diets could lead to increased costs. However, the authors say that it’s worth promoting a switch to sustainable and healthier diets as opposed to Western-style diets. Because the latter are more expensive, less healthy, and more harmful to the planet. To help, the focus should be on food waste reduction and economic development. These aspects could reduce the cost of sustainable and healthy diets.