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Increasing plant-based food production would have extremely positive impact

With the surging global concerns over climate change and rapid deforestation, an important new study suggests a potential remedy that lies in our diets. According to recent research published in Nature Communications, swapping half of our meat and milk consumption with plant-based alternatives by 2050 could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 31% and stall the degradation of forests and natural terrains.

Going a step further, the research suggests that additional environmental advantages could come from the reforestation of areas previously dedicated to livestock production. This action could amplify the climate benefits, cutting down the prospective degradation of ecosystems by 50% by mid-century.

Impressively, such efforts in reforestation could address up to a quarter of the global land restoration targets set for 2030 under Target 2 of the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

Global study of plant-based foods

This monumental study is the inaugural exploration into the environmental and food security ramifications of large-scale adoption of plant-based meat and milk alternatives. A truly global undertaking, the study was conducted independently by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in collaboration with the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, USAID. The group also sought insights from Impossible Foods, a pioneering entity in the plant-based meat substitute industry.

It’s pertinent to mention that the research remained autonomous, even with inputs from Impossible Foods. “The data are, however, not specific to Impossible Foods and the science team had complete control over decision making,” the release stated.

Marta Kozicka is the study’s lead author from IIASA’s Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program. She emphasized the significance of the research, stating that “Understanding the impacts of dietary shifts expands our options for reducing GHG emissions. Shifting diets could also yield huge improvements for biodiversity.”

Furthermore, Eva Wollenberg, a study co-author, and researcher from Alliance of Bioversity International, CIAT, and the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont, added, “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.”

What the research team learned

The research paints an optimistic picture. In scenarios where 50% of meat and milk products are replaced with plant-based alternatives, significant environmental benefits could be observed by 2050.

  • A 12% reduction in global agricultural area.
  • A near-total halt in the decline of forest and natural lands.
  • Nitrogen inputs to farmlands could be halved.
  • A 10% drop in water usage.
  • A 31% reduction in GHG emissions (2.1 Gt CO2eq year-1) by 2050.
  • A decline in global undernourishment to 3.6%.

Moreover, if lands saved from livestock production were to undergo “biodiversity-minded afforestation”, the benefits in terms of reduced emissions could double. In a more ambitious 90% substitution scenario, GHG emission reductions could reach a staggering 11.1 Gt CO2eq year-1 by 2050.

Petr Havlík, who directed the study at IIASA, pointed out the essential balance between dietary changes and production side policies. He cautioned, “Otherwise, these benefits will be partly lost due to production extensification and resulting GHG and land-use efficiency losses.”

Plant-based dietary shifts would vary

Yet, the study also emphasized that shifts in diets would not uniformly affect all regions. They cited disparities in population, diets, agricultural productivity, and trade.

The most noticeable effects on agricultural input are likely in China, while environmental outcomes would be more pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. Kozicka added, “A global introduction of all novel alternatives has additional benefits compared to the scenarios with limited product or geographical scope.”

It’s essential, however, to recognize the multifaceted role of livestock in diverse cultures and economies, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Livestock play a vital role in the livelihoods, nutrition, and culture of many communities.

In conclusion, while plant-based meat alternatives are promising, ensuring a just and sustainable transition for all stakeholders, particularly smallholder farmers facing the brunt of climate change, is of paramount importance. The world’s food security hangs in the balance, and the time for decisive action is now.

More about the impact of livestock production

Livestock production, one of the fastest-growing sectors in agriculture, leaves an indelible mark on our environment. Here, we delve into the main environmental consequences linked to raising animals for food.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Livestock production emits a significant amount of greenhouse gases. Cattle, for instance, produce methane—a greenhouse gas over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide—during digestion. In total, livestock account for around 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.


Farmers often clear forests to create pasture or grow feed crops for livestock. In places like the Amazon, livestock farming has been a major driver of deforestation, threatening biodiversity and further contributing to climate change.

Less water usage with plant-based diets

Producing meat requires vast amounts of water. For example, producing one kilogram of beef consumes approximately 15,000 liters of water. This usage strains already limited freshwater resources, especially in water-scarce regions.

Land degradation

Overgrazing by livestock can strip lands of their vegetation, leading to soil erosion and desertification. This not only reduces the productivity of the land but also impacts local ecosystems and reduces biodiversity.

Water pollution

Runoff from farms, laden with manure and livestock-produced waste, contaminates rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. This pollution can lead to algal blooms that produce toxins harmful to aquatic life and humans.

Loss of biodiversity

The expansion of livestock farming disrupts local ecosystems, often pushing out native species. Moreover, the increased use of antibiotics in farming has cascading effects on microorganisms in soils and waters, further disturbing the natural balance.

Resource inefficiency

Livestock, especially cattle, consume more protein from plants than they provide in the form of edible meat. This makes livestock an inefficient method of converting plant protein into food for human consumption, especially when considering the environmental costs.

Less air pollution with plant-based foods

Livestock farms release ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other harmful gases into the atmosphere. These gases not only contribute to global warming but can also harm human health, leading to respiratory problems and other ailments.

In summary, while livestock farming plays a crucial role in the global food system, its environmental consequences are profound. Addressing these impacts requires a multi-pronged approach, including sustainable farming practices, dietary shifts, and policy interventions.

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