Introduction: Animal agriculture has exponentially grown in recent decades in response to the rise in global demand for meat, even in countries like Italy that traditionally eat a Mediterranean, plant-based diet. Globalization related dietary changes are contributing to the epidemic of non-communicable diseases and to the global climate crisis, and are associated with huge carbon and water footprints. The objective of the study is to assess inequalities in health impacts and in attributable greenhouse gases-GHG emissions in Italy by hypothesizing different scenarios of reduction in red and processed meat consumption towards healthier consumption patterns more compliant with the recommendations of the Mediterranean food pyramid.
Methods: We used demographic and food consumption patterns from national surveys and risk relationships between meat intake and cardiovascular and colorectal cancer mortality from IARC and other meta-analyses. From the baseline data (year 2005-2006, average 406 gr/week beef and 245 gr/week processed meat), we considered hypothetical meat reduction scenarios according to international dietary guidelines such as the Mediterranean pyramid targets. For each geographical area (Northwest, Northeast, Centre, and South) and gender, we calculated the number of avoidable deaths from colorectal cancer, and cardiovascular disease among the adult population. Moreover, years of life gained by the adult population from 2012 to 2030 and changes in life expectancy of the 2012 birth cohort were quantified using gender-specific life tables. GHG emission reductions under Mediterranean scenario were estimated only for beef by applying the Global Warming Potential (GWP) coefficient to total consumption and to a low carbon food substitution in adult diet.
Results: The deaths avoidable (as percentage change compared to baseline) according to the three reduction scenarios for beef consumption were between 2.3% and 4.5% for colorectal cancer, and between 2.1% and 4.0% for cardiovascular disease; higher benefits would be observed in Northwestern areas and among males. In parallel, 5% and 6.4% of colorectal cancer and CVD deaths would be avoided if the Italian population ate the advised quantity of processed meat. Life table analysis suggests that the scenario that is fully compliant with the Mediterranean diet model would save 5 million years of life lost prematurely among men and women over the next 18 years and would increase average life expectancy of future generations by over 7 months. Considering the environmental impact, emissions associated with the actual total intake of beef range from 12,900 to 21,800 Gg CO2 eq; emissions saved according to the Mediterranean scenario are in the range 8000-14000 Gg CO2 eq per year. The per capita reduction is 263 KgCO2eq/year/person with higher reductions in Northwestern and Central areas.
Conclusions: In Italy, scenarios for reducing beef consumption are consistent with significant health and environmental co-benefits on current and future generations. Results support introducing policies to promote healthier behavior towards red and processed meat in the adult population within an overall balanced and healthy dietary pattern. Interventions should address gender, vulnerable population groups, and geographical differences in order to be more effective.