Replacing meat and milk with plant-based alternatives would slash global warming in less than 30 years, according to a new study.
Scientists say substituting half of all meat and dairy products with plant-based food alternatives by 2050 can reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture by nearly a third (31 percent), save forests, and improve nutrition for millions of people.
Additional climate and biodiversity benefits could come from reforesting land spared from livestock production when meat and milk products are substituted by plant-based alternatives – more than doubling the climate benefits and halving future declines of ecosystem integrity by 2050, according to the study published in the journal Nature Communications.
The restored area could contribute up to 25 percent of the estimated global land restoration needs under Target 2 of the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework by 2030, say the international research team.
Study co-author Professor Eva Wollenberg, of the University of Vermont (UVM) in the US, said: “We’ll need much more than ‘Meatless Mondays’ to reduce the global GHG emissions driving climate change and this study shows us a path forward.
“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.
“Such transitions are challenging and require a range of technological innovations and policy interventions.”
The study is the first to look at the global food security and environmental impacts of plant-based meat and milk consumption at large scales that considers the complexity of food systems.
Study lead author Dr. Marta Kozicka, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), said: “Understanding the impacts of dietary shifts expands our options for reducing GHG emissions.
“Shifting diets could also yield huge improvements for biodiversity.”
The team calculated that a 50 percent substitution scenario would “substantially” reduce the mounting impacts of food systems on the natural environment by 2050.
Compared to 2020, they say the impacts would include global agricultural area declines by 12 percent instead of expanding while the decline in areas of forest and other natural land is almost completely halted.
The team said nitrogen inputs to cropland would be nearly half of the projections, while water use would decline by 10 percent instead of increasing.
The team developed scenarios of dietary changes based on plant-based recipes for beef, pork, chicken, and milk.
The recipes were designed to be nutritionally equivalent to the original animal-derived protein products and realistic for the existing food manufacturing capabilities and globally available production ingredients.
To ensure relevance and as a potential user of the findings, the research team solicited input from Impossible Foods, a firm that develops plant-based substitutes for meat products.
The company provided generic recipes for the plant-based meat substitute products used in the analysis.
The research team say the full environmental benefit of diet shifts can be achieved if the agricultural land spared from livestock and feed production is restored through biodiversity-minded afforestation.
IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources program director Petr Havlík said: “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.”
While the results support the increased use of plant-based meat substitutes, the researchers recognized that livestock are a valuable source of income and nourishment for smallholders in low- and middle-income countries.
Simultaneously, climate change threatens the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
The team said rapid policy and management action to avoid environmental risk and support farmers for a “socially just and sustainable” food system transition will be crucial.
They say impacts across regions could differ due to differences in population size and diets, unequal agricultural productivity, and participation in international trade of agricultural commodities.
They believe the main impacts on agricultural input use are in China and on environmental outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America.
Prof. Wollenberg added: “The food sector produces roughly one-third of global GHG emissions -and has been notoriously difficult to decarbonize.
“Given the magnitude of benefits we show from substituting meat with plant-based alternatives for global sustainability, climate action, and human health, this research provides important food for thought for consumers, food producers, and policymakers.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker