Would you give up meat and milk to save the environment by 2050?

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Replacing meat and milk with plant-based alternatives could significantly reduce global warming in under 30 years, a new study explains. According to scientists, if we replaced half of all meat and dairy products with plant-based alternatives by 2050, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture could drop by nearly 31 percent. This change could also preserve forests and enhance nutrition for millions.

Beyond these benefits, reforesting areas previously used for livestock production could double the climate advantages and reduce by half the projected decline in ecosystem integrity by 2050. This information comes from a study published in Nature Communications.

Such restored areas might fulfill up to 25 percent of the global land restoration goals set by Target 2 of the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework by 2030, as stated by the international research team.

Professor Eva Wollenberg from the University of Vermont (UVM), a co-author of the study, emphasized that mere initiatives like “Meatless Mondays” are insufficient to significantly curb global GHG emissions.

“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. Yet, such transitions are challenging and require a range of technological innovations and policy interventions,” adds Wollenberg in a media release.

Plant-based meal, salad, vegetables
(© vaaseenaa – stock.adobe.com)

This study is pioneering in assessing the worldwide food security and environmental impacts of consuming plant-based meat and milk on a large scale while acknowledging the intricacies of food systems.

“Understanding the impacts of dietary shifts expands our options for reducing GHG emissions. Shifting diets could also yield huge improvements for biodiversity,” notes study lead author Marta Kozicka, a researcher in the IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program.

The team’s calculations indicate that a 50-percent substitution approach would notably diminish the escalating strain of food systems on the environment by 2050. They project that compared to 2020, the global agricultural space would shrink by 12 percent, and the decrease in forest and other natural lands would nearly stop. Regarding inputs, nitrogen added to croplands could be almost half of current predictions, and water usage could decrease by 10 percent.

The study designed plant-based recipes for beef, pork, chicken, and milk, ensuring they were nutritionally comparable to their animal-derived counterparts. Impossible Foods provided generic recipes for plant-based substitutes, contributing to the analysis.

Beyond Burger
(© steheap – stock.adobe.com)

The research emphasizes that the full environmental advantage of diet changes can be realized if lands freed from livestock production undergo biodiversity-focused afforestation.

“While the analyzed dietary shifts serve as a powerful enabler for reaching climate and biodiversity goals, they must be accompanied by targeted production side policies to deliver their full potential. Otherwise, these benefits will be partly lost due to production extensification and resulting GHG and land-use efficiency losses,” explains IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program Director Petr Havlík, who coordinated the study.

While the findings endorse plant-based meat alternatives, the researchers acknowledge the importance of livestock to the income and diet of smallholder farmers in developing nations. As climate change jeopardizes these farmers’ livelihoods, immediate policy and management actions are crucial to facilitate a fair and sustainable transition in food systems.

Regional impacts may vary due to population, dietary differences, agricultural productivity disparities, and participation in global agricultural trade. The most significant impacts might be observed in China for agricultural input use and in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America for environmental outcomes.

Prof Wollenberg concluded that the food sector, responsible for roughly a third of global GHG emissions, has been challenging to decarbonize. Considering the substantial benefits derived from substituting meat with plant-based alternatives, this study offers valuable insights for consumers, producers, and policymakers.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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