People who follow a plant-based diet are responsible for 75 percent fewer greenhouse gases than those who eat more than 3.5 ounces of meat a day, and a vegan diet also results in significantly less damage to land, water and biodiversity, according to new research from the University of Oxford.

While the link between animal agriculture and environmental damage is well established, earlier studies used scientific modeling to reach these conclusions. In contrast, the Oxford research drew from the actual diets of 55,500 people – vegans, vegetarians, fish eaters and meat eaters – in the UK and used data from around 38,000 farms in 119 countries.

The peer review study, led by Peter Scarborough, professor of public health at Oxford, was published on Thursday in the journal Nature Food.

If meat eaters in the UK who consumed more than 3.5 ounces of meat a day (slightly less than the size of a quarter-pound hamburger) were to reduce their consumption to less than 1.7 ounces a day (roughly the amount of a single McDonald’s meat patty) it would be the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road, Dr Scarborough said.

The study found that compared to meat-heavy diets, vegan diets resulted in 75 percent less land use, 54 percent less water use and 66 percent less biodiversity. A vegan diet avoids all animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, people who ate more than 3.5 ounces of meat per day accounted for 22.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per day due to, among other variables, the farming of livestock and land used to grow animal feed. People who ate less than 1.7 ounces of meat accounted for about half that amount, or about 11.8 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, while fish-eaters accounted for 10.4 pounds of carbon dioxide per day, and vegetarian diets produced 9 pounds of carbon dioxide per day. Vegan diets had the lowest totals, accounting for 5.4 pounds of carbon dioxide per day.

There were parallel effects on freshwater pollution and biodiversity loss by diet type. In terms of land and water use and effects on species extinction, vegetarians, fish-eaters and low-meat diets had similar results.

The study also found that vegans and vegetarians were on average younger than fish and meat eaters.

Dr Scarborough said that while critics of plant-based diets often emphasized environmental impacts of selected vegan foods, such as the amount of water needed to produce almond milk, the new research showed that plant-based diets have far less environmental impact than animal-based ones, regardless of how the food was produced.

In the Oxford study, meat was defined as all land animals. Earlier research found that organic beef, chicken and pork meat production is just as damaging to the climate as conventional livestock farming.

“What our work says is, even in the worst cases, the environmental footprint of not only vegan diets but low meat diets is much, much better than high meat consumption diets,” Dr Scarborough said.

“This reinforces the message that the amount of meat we consume is strongly related to our environmental footprint,” Dr Scarborough said. “Small changes from being a high meat eater to a low meat eater can make a huge difference in environmental impact.”

Globally, the food system is responsible for about one-third of planet-warming emissions, 70 percent of freshwater use and 78 percent of freshwater pollution. To curb the worst climate impacts, the United Nations has called for a drastic reduction of consumption of meat.

The Oxford study was funded by the Wellcome Trust, an independent global charity based in London focused on health research.

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