Could you reduce meat consumption by 50% to help the environment?

Substituting 50% of our animal-based foods with plant-based options could cut greenhouse gas emissions from farming by 31% by 2050 and help protect forests and natural land, a new study suggests.

According to a study published in Nature Communications, despite accounting for less than 20% of the global food energy supply, producing animal-based foods like meat, chicken, pork, and milk consumes extensive resources, leading to significant greenhouse gas emissions and harm to biodiversity.

“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 the study’s co-author, Eva Wollenberg, a social scientist at the University of Vermont. “Yet, such transitions are challenging and require a range of technological innovations and policy interventions.”

This research is the first of its kind to investigate the global effects on food security and the environment when changing to plant-based consumption, and it shows dietary change scenarios by using plant-based recipes for beef, pork, chicken, and milk.

The study says that switching just 50% of our diet to plant-based recipes could bring the following benefits:

– We can reduce the amount of land used for farming globally by 12%, instead of needing more land.

– The decrease in forests and natural lands will nearly stop getting worse.

– The amount of nitrogen added to farmland would be almost half of what is projected to be used otherwise.

– Water use will decrease by 10% instead of increasing.

– Greenhouse gas emissions could drop by 31% in 2050, equivalent to 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2 per year (compared to an average of 1.6 billion metric tons per year from 2020 to 2050).

– The global undernourishment rate will decrease to 3.6% from 3.8%, which would decrease the number of hungry people by 31 million.

Researchers say that if we were to do a 90% substitution, all agriculture and land-use emissions would decrease to 11.1 billion metric tons of CO2 per year by 2050.

However, the study notes that regional impacts may vary because of differences in population, diets, agricultural productivity, and international food trade.

In the U.S., for example, the country leads in beef and veal production, with over 12.6 million metric tons produced in 2022. This led to the U.S. having about 30 million cows for just beef production in 2022, three times more than the dairy cow population that year.

However, data shows that the younger generations are more likely to adopt plant-based diets, with Gen Z leading the trend.