A new study published in Nature Communications has found that replacing half of the animal foods consumed worldwide with plant-based meat and dairy alternatives could have significant environmental benefits.
The research suggests that net forest loss could be “almost fully halted” if this change is made, with greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use declining by 31% in 2050 compared to 2020. In this scenario, around 653 Mha of agricultural land could be spared and restored to forest, doubling climate benefits. Furthermore, water use could be reduced by 10%.
Replacing 50% of animal foods with plants could also reduce the rate of biodiversity loss from 2.1% to 0.9% by 2050. If 90% of animal foods were replaced, biodiversity loss would actually reverse between 2030 and 2040.
Environmental impacts would vary considerably between regions; in the 50% scenario, China alone would be responsible for a quarter of the abandoned cropland, along with 20% of the reductions in water and nitrogen use. Sub-Saharan Africa would have the greatest potential to halt the loss of forests and natural land, accounting for 37% of the global reduction in land conversion. This region, along with China and Southeast Asia, would also see the greatest drop in biodiversity loss.
However, the researchers note that achieving these dramatic reductions in animal product consumption will require policy changes and other interventions, such as information campaigns, programs to serve plant-based products in schools, and taxation of high-emission foods.
“Creating space for nature”
Countless studies have now emphasized the environmental benefits of plant-based diets, with research published in July finding that vegan diets could slash emissions and land use by 75%. Meanwhile, water use could be cut by 54%, wildlife destruction by 66%, and methane production by a huge 93%.
July also saw the publication of a scientific report requested by the European Commission, which described cutting down on animal foods as a “key mitigation option” for climate change and recommended that Europeans eat “as little animal products as possible”. In February, GFI published two reports finding that alternative proteins could significantly reduce land use and halt biodiversity loss.
“We need to see a shift towards plant-based and cultivated meat, which use far less land and can help satisfy the rising demand for meat while creating space for nature,” said Linus Pardoe, UK policy manager at GFI Europe.