What we eat can have a drastic impact on the state of the planet, research finds. - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

Plant-Based Shift Can Cut Food-Related Emissions By 61%, New Study Says

Scientists have encouraged those living in high-income countries to adapt their diets for the good of the planet

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4 Minutes Read

A newly published study has unearthed the potential environmental advantages of swapping out animal products for plant-based food. Researchers found that high-income countries could drastically reduce their agricultural greenhouse gas emissions – by almost two-thirds – if they lowered their meat and dairy consumption.

The study, published in Nature Food, focussed on 54 high-income countries, including Australia, France, Germany, the UK, and the US. 

Researchers looked at how the carbon footprint of these countries could change if their residents adopted the EAT-Lancet Commission’s “plant-forward” planetary health diet

Under these guidelines, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, unsaturated plant oils, and legumes, for instance, make up most of an individual’s calories. Meanwhile, meat and dairy take a backseat, and are recommended in small amounts. 

Results

The study’s authors found that high-income countries could lower their agricultural emissions by 61 percent by adopting this plant-focused approach.

Dr Sonja Vermeulen, the lead global food scientist at WWF, was not involved in the study but spoke to Carbon Brief about the findings. 

“To put this in perspective,” Vermeulen explained, “it’s about the same positive impact as all countries signing up to and implementing the COP26 declaration on the transition to 100 percent zero emission cars and vans globally by 2040.”

It’s not just emissions that would change alongside dietary shifts. Moving away from animal products could free up an area of land larger than the entirety of the European Union, researchers said.

And if this land was left to revert to its natural state, it would sequester roughly 100 billion tons of carbon by the end of the century. 

This is equal to 14 years of global agricultural emissions from 2010. 

“The term ‘food system transformation’ is perhaps often used too lightly – but there can be no doubt that the changes in these places would constitute total transformation of local economies, landscapes and cultures,” Vermeulen commented.

“Imagine the vast cattle ranches of the US and Australia replaced with equally vast rewilded or repurposed lands – would these be used for biomass and bioenergy, or conservation and biodiversity, and how would rural communities create new livelihoods for themselves?”

Antonio Rodriguez via Adobe Stock Lowering meat and dairy production could lower emissions and free up land.

Taking responsibility

Dr Matthew Hayek is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at NYU’s College of Arts & Science. Hayek also spoke to Carbon Brief about the research. 

Hayek, who was not involved in the study, suggested that those living in high-income communities have a responsibility to help tackle climate breakdown.

“Folks in developed countries eat far more meat and dairy than the global average… Reducing emissions from food consumption in rich countries is critical. For consumers who have ample food choices, these choices play a sizable role in contributing to our climate goals,” Hayek explained.

“Our policies must reflect this by making healthy and sustainable food choices more prevalent, convenient, and inexpensive,” they continued. “Imagine if half of the public in richer regions cut half the animal products in their diets, you’re still talking about a massive opportunity in environmental outcomes and public health.”

Moreover, such changes could have a domino effect and improve low- and mid-income countries’ environmental standing. This is without those groups even adjusting their own eating habits. 

If high-income nations lowered their meat intake, countries like Brazil and India would not need to export so much food, the study explains. This would lower their own emissions and free up land to capture carbon. 

Meat and the planet

The recent research is certainly not the first to find links between animal agriculture and environmental damage. 

In September, a major study, also published in Nature Food, found that meat production is to blame for 57 percent of global food-related emissions.

Along a similar vein, separate research discovered that meat-eaters are responsible for nearly two-thirds more emissions than vegetarians. 

Animal agriculture is also a leading driver of air and water pollution, deforestation, and ocean dead zones. It’s also resource-intensive, requiring vast amounts of water and crops

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The Author

Jemima Webber

Jemima is the Head of Editorial of Plant Based News. Aside from writing about climate and animal rights issues, she studies psychology in Newcastle, Australia (where she was born).

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Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
8 months ago

Conversion to “real farming” both plant and animal, ( non industrial ) would restore it to zero

Matt
Matt
7 months ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

Can you explain exactly how that would work? Because even forests are net emitters of CO2e for the first 10 to 20 years. Explain your agricultural system that magically produces zero emissions.

If what you’re saying is true I think there is a Nobel Prize in your future.

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt

You’re quite right Matt, should have read “over time”.

Matt
Matt
7 months ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

Honestly, can you describe such a system? Exactly what would that look like and how would it work? Also how did you reach the figure of zero emissions. Where is your data from?

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt

No need to describe it, it’s existed for thousands of years and still does in many third world areas and by some more enlightened practitioners in the developed world. Thanks for the Nobel nomination but you can’t get a prize for something you didn’t discover.

Matt
Matt
7 months ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

So, describe what it looks like? Are we talking the PNG highlanders diet of sweet potatoes and human flesh? What model exactly are you proposing?

And also how can you claim zero net emissions form those systems? Again, where is you data?

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt

Which of the multitude of traditional food producing systems in use across the world do you want a description of?

Data? You don’t need anything more than Siegert’s ice core samples. No rise in GHGs prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Oh and yes it is possible to feed the world on sustainable non chemical Ag.

Matt
Matt
7 months ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

Sustainable agriculture (which I support by the way), creates less CO2e emissions than industrial agriculture. That is different from claiming something as ridiculous as it produces zero emissions. All human activity creates emissions, mining, farming, manufacturing, bit-coin mining, tick-tock, breathing.

But I think I understand what you are really getting at. If you consider the earth as a single system then it may be possible to manage our food production is such a way that there is no net anthropomorphic increase in GHG at least from out agricultural systems. This would require a vast rewilding of lands currently used to feed and raise livestock. The rewilding would act as a carbon sink to offset emissions that are unavoidable. This would take several decades to take effect because new forests require 10 to 20 years before they evolve into net sequesters. It would also require a reversal of people living in cities, a return to the land, no more fossil fuels used in farming for energy or fertilizer. I don’t see that last one happening. 8 billon people living off the land? We should focus on more likely scenarios.

Rowland Ross
Rowland Ross
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt

Couple of points Matt.

Looking well into the future the reduction of the human population is ESSENTIAL and we need to start NOW. This is not just a global warming issue, it’s also a question of overall resources.

Non need to remove livestock or go in for tree planting, Application of the first rule of land management will do that anyway, it’s called “Environmental Context”. A highly complex subject which put simply means assessment of land for the foods it can supply whilst taking in to account latitude, climate, soil fertility and above all the the naturally occurring flora and fauna. Most traditional and modern scientific versions of traditional agriculture should do that anyway.

Before you comment further there are two sites I think you should consult.

Keynote at farming for the future (youtube). One and a half hours long but stacked full of information ( some of it quite frightening )

And, Centre for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems. ( California State University ) Website.

Matt
Matt
7 months ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

I’ll check those resources out.

Matt
Matt
7 months ago
Reply to  Rowland Ross

You know Homo Erectus had a carbon footprint, you understand that don’t you Rowland? Through their own respiration, and their use of fire. No human population has ever been carbon neutral. Our most fundamental technology is fire usage. You understand that don’t you?

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