The consumption of meat and dairy products puts an enormous strain on the planet. Replacing forests with grasslands for grazing cattle and growing grain used for their feed means releasing stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. And cow burps release methane, the second most prevalent greenhouse gas, which has a greater warming effect than carbon dioxide.
A new study has found that replacing half the chicken, beef, pork and milk products consumed by humans with plant-based alternatives has the potential to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, as well as related land use, by almost one-third. The reduction would also effectively stop forest loss.
“Plant-based meats are not just a novel food product but a critical opportunity for achieving food security and climate goals while also achieving health and biodiversity objectives worldwide,” said study co-author Eva Wollenberg, an anthropologist and natural resource management specialist with the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, as AFP reported.
Global demand for animal products is set to increase due to higher incomes and population growth, which could lead to detrimental consequences for the environment.
“Higher meat demand is usually associated with higher incomes and dietary shifts related to urbanization, which favor proteins from animal sources in diets,” Marta Kozicka, an agricultural economist and research scholar with the Integrated Biosphere Futures Research Group at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis near Vienna, Austria, told EcoWatch in an email.
The study, “Feeding climate and biodiversity goals with novel plant-based meat and milk alternatives,” was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Using modeling, the researchers looked at the results of a global dietary move toward plant-based alternatives to chicken, beef, pork and milk with comparable nutritional value, reported AFP.
“We based our analysis on the Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM), an economic partial equilibrium model that integrates global agriculture, bioenergy, and forestry sectors. It is a powerful tool that allows for exploration of future scenarios for food and agricultural systems,” Kozicka told EcoWatch.
The results suggested that reducing consumption of meat and dairy by 50 percent could lead to greenhouse gas emissions from land use and agriculture being reduced by 31 percent by 2050, as compared to 2020 levels.
If that were to happen, instead of continuing to expand, agricultural land use would be reduced by 12 percent. In addition, areas of natural land and forests would stay at about the same level as they were in 2020.
Nitrogen used for crops would be cut nearly in half as compared to current projections, and water use would be reduced by 10 percent.
But how realistic is it to expect people around the world to reduce their meat and dairy consumption by half?
“We argue that achieving up to 50% substitution by 2050 is realistic, especially if we consider replacement of the animal products not only with the novel plant-based alternatives, but also with traditional plant-based products, such as tofu, and other novel meat substitutes, whether cell-based or insect-based,” Kozicka said.
One of the main considerations for consumers thinking about replacing some of the meat and dairy they eat with plant-based alternatives is cost, Kozicka explained.
“A major factor that will determine how the novel plant-based alternatives’ markets evolve is the price of the products, as currently they are generally more expensive than their animal sourced analogues. In this process, policies and regulations, as well as the market development (how good the products are, what is their price) could all play a role,” Kozicka told EcoWatch.
Access to affordable, healthy alternative foods is another issue that needs to be addressed.
“According to the FAO ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023,’ more than 3.1 billion people in the world – or 42 percent – were unable to afford a healthy diet in 2021, representing an increase of 134 million people compared to 2019, before the pandemic,” Kozicka said. “This reflects the increase in the cost of a healthy diet that, in many countries, occurred in combination with a decline in disposable income.”
Kozicka added that, according to studies, healthy and sustainable diets were significantly less expensive in countries that had upper-middle to high incomes, but more expensive in lower-middle to low-income countries.
“This is why it is so important to improve the availability and accessibility of foods that constitute these diets,” Kozicka told EcoWatch.
A shift toward plant-based alternatives would improve food security around the world, according to the study, as there would be 31 million fewer people facing malnutrition by mid-century.
Biodiversity would be enhanced as well, with the land area being restored making up from 13 to 25 percent of the approximate land restoration necessary to meet the 30-by-30 goal to conserve 30 percent of marine and land habitat around the world by 2030.
“Plant-based foods require much less land than their animal-source equivalents. As a result, deforestation and conversion of other natural land into agricultural land could be significantly reduced, or even stopped thanks to this dietary change. This would reduce biodiversity loss. Furthermore, in our study we considered an additional measure to restore the agricultural land spared from livestock and feed production within forest biomes through afforestation with biodiversity-friendly management. This would restore some of the biodiversity that had been lost,” Kozicka said.
The greatest reductions in biodiversity loss would be in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and China. Carbon sequestration would see the biggest improvements in South America — primarily Brazil — and sub-Saharan Africa.
The study also suggested that ecosystem decline would be cut in half by 2050.
Just replacing beef with plant-based alternatives would result in about half the reductions in emissions of all four animal products combined.
The researchers said small-scale farmers who rely on livestock should be taken into consideration, but pointed out that climate change presented a substantial risk to their livelihoods.
“Importantly, the changes need to happen across the food system, that is, measures to shift demand towards healthy and sustainable diets need to be accompanied by interventions to ensure availability and accessibility of nutritious plant-based foods. This will require, among others, sustainable intensification of agricultural production, support for farmers and other stakeholders that might be negatively affected by the transition, as well as additional environmental measures that will ensure achievement of the maximum environmental benefits,” Kozicka told EcoWatch.
Kozicka said that a transition to more plant-based food choices is one of the essential changes necessary for a healthy future free of fossil fuels.
“Different studies show that sustainable diets will be an important component of a larger bundle of measures taken to meet climate change mitigation targets. Importantly, predominantly plant-based diets are good not only for the planet, but also for our health,” Kozicka said.