Marco Springmann is from Germany’s Ruhr region, a largely working-class area that he likens to America’s Rust Belt. His father made a living building generators for coal-fired power plants.
“It’s a very practical area, I’m proletarian, and I think the diet I grew up with was very regional,” said the Oxford University researcher. “Lots of sausages.”
Germany is one of the world’s leading consumers of sausage, producing more than 1.5 metric tons annually.
But Springmann’s tastes began to change when he moved to the US for graduate studies… or rather, his thinking began to change.
Springmann was studying to become a physicist when he began learning about the health concerns associated with meat. So he started cutting them out of his diet. As he continued to study, he switched to a completely plant-based diet. He also changed his research field from physics to atmospheric science and climate change. At the intersection of his two main interests – health and climate – Springmann’s research showed how a plant-based diet reduced his carbon footprint.
“My initial thought was, ‘I know it’s healthier and more environmentally sustainable (to not eat animal products), why wouldn’t I do that?'”
With the meat-eating days over, he delved into the correlation between diet and the environment, specifically whether eating less animal-based products could slow down the climate crisis. It’s a topic he said didn’t get much attention 15-20 years ago.
“At the time, most climate change research was on the production side: power plants and how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The connection between climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and the food system was really in its infancy.”
Springmann is now a Senior Research Fellow in Environment and Health at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Environmental Change. Currently based in the UK, his research has been shared worldwide on the “very slim chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change” without a shift in eating habits to more plant-based diets.
According to Springmann, if everyone adopted a plant-based diet by 2050 “about eight gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions would be saved”.
“A saving of 8 [gigatons] it would be the second largest emitter. That’s after China’s emissions, but a quarter more than the US and double Europe’s.
One reason for this is that “beef is 100 times more emissions intensive than legumes,” Springmann says in a 2019 CNN article.
Along with lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower meat production would save energy, water and land use worldwide. And eating less meat can reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity and other health problems.
But Springmann isn’t out to “sham” people, insisting he won’t be telling anyone to go vegan. “In my research I often include a plant-based scenario, but among many other scenarios such as flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian and so on.”
So there’s no need to get your stomach in knots worrying about making big changes to your diet; you don’t have to give up meat completely.
“Our main scenario was this flexitarian scenario,” says Springmann. “That includes red meat more than one serving a week, poultry more than two servings a week, fish more than two servings a week and dairy more than one serving a day. So if you add it all up, that diet is like vegetarian or vegan up to two days a week.” .
Springmann’s parents, who still live in Germany, have gradually started to cook more plant-based meals, opening their plates to new foods and experimenting in the kitchen.
“For Christmas last year, I tried to make a vegan Beef Wellington which was fun,” she said. “Everyone liked it, it was nice.”
A general change in attitude and diet has begun to be noticed in his hometown.
According to a 2020 report by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 55% of respondents consider themselves flexible. He believes these dietary changes are happening because many Germans are concerned about the climate crisis and are open to discussing the consequences of their behavior on it.
“It has moved a lot of discussion and helped talk about diet and the scientific basis of climate change. In the states, on the other hand, it is much more polarized.”
Many Americans will find it hard to give up their burgers because of the climate crisis, but at the rate the world’s population is growing, meat production will be unsustainable. A 2019 World Resources Institute report found that “Americans will need to reduce their average beef consumption by about 40%” to sustain food supplies. But the good news is that it’s now easier than ever to find meat alternatives and plant-based foods almost anywhere.
Springmann hopes that the growing concern about the climate crisis can one day unite us all in a global food movement, where everyone will have a seat at the table to make a difference.
“The many challenges we have and will have can be met if we manage to work together across the board, and I hope we can do that.”