Going cold turkey on turkey is hard. Same goes for giving up pork, beef, cheese and other food that comes from animals and adds to the planet’s environmental woes.
But even if you’re unwilling or unable to go fully vegan, you can still craft a diet much better for the environment, according to a new study.
Cutting the amount of pork, beef, chicken and milk that humanity eats in half would halt net deforestation and other loss of natural lands almost entirely and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land use by nearly a third, according to the paper published last week in the journal Nature Communications.
“We can have a real impact by replacing our meat and dairy consumption with plant-based alternatives – even just partially,” said Marta Kozicka, an agricultural economist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria who led the modeling.
About a tenth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with much of that pollution emanating from raising livestock and growing its feed. In Brazil and elsewhere in the world, the conversion of wildlands to cattle ranches is devouring rainforests, which not only worsens climate change but also deprives wildlife of habitat and leads to the loss in biodiversity.
From meat to plant-based alternatives
To model what would happen if the world collectively replaced half of all meat and milk products with plant-based alternatives by 2050, Kozicka and her colleagues came up with a grocery list.
With the help of food maker Impossible Foods, the research team compiled plant-based recipes designed to be more or less nutritionally equivalent to the originals containing animal products. Think oat milk in lieu of cow’s milk – or an Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger in place of a meat patty. Three of the study’s authors were or are employees at Impossible Foods.
Kozicka and her colleagues focused on products that can be used “in a way that we don’t change our habits,” Kozicka said.
If the world adopted such a diet, the net loss of forests and other natural lands would almost fully be halted, with enough land currently in agricultural use to meet the world’s meat and dairy needs under that global half-measure diet, the study found.
And greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use would fall by 31 percent in 2050 compared with 2020, a reduction equal to shuttering more than 500 coal-fired power plants. There is potential for even greater cuts if farmland is turned back into forest, according to the analysis.
Such a switch would also help the nations meet global habitat restoration goals laid out in an international agreement brokered last December in Montreal.
Stephanie Roe, lead climate and energy scientist at the World Wildlife Fund who was not involved in the research, said that the study’s approach was “novel and fairly comprehensive” but that she would have liked to see if there were health trade-offs from increasing the consumption of processed, plant-based alternatives to meat.
“The study could have been made stronger had they explored the nutritional aspects a bit deeper,” said Roe.
How to cut back on meat
The idea of trimming the fat out of meat-filled diets is gaining traction in the culinary world. Some are adopting Meatless Mondays, a trend with roots in the rationing era of World War I. Food journalist Mark Bittman has advocated a “Vegan Before 6:00” diet that involves eating meat and dairy only in the evening. Some Catholics are taking a second look at the tradition of forgoing meat on Fridays for environmental reasons.
Though the study focused on replacing animal-based products with processed plant-based alternatives, there are other strategies to cut back – including simply eating more fresh vegetables and legumes. Some chefs advocate making plants the centerpiece, with meat playing a much smaller role in meals.
And of course, there is only so much an individual can do. Big environmental benefits only come with a global shift. “We see that the real impact can be achieved if the dietary change happens at scale,” Kozicka said.