New research has shown that swapping out meat for plant-based protein sources such as lentils, beans and nuts could dramatically reduce the effect of more than a decade of carbon emissions on the climate. The paper also found that vegetation regrowth as a result of a plant-based shift would effectively double the Earth’s carbon budget, which is currently shrinking at a rapid rate.
Conducted by researchers at New York University, Harvard Law School, Oregon State University and Colorado State University, the study finds that plant proteins such as lentils, beans and nuts can provide all the important nutrients we require while using a fraction of the land currently occupied by animal agriculture.
The paper, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, says that these drastic reductions in animal meat consumption to plant-based foods could help shift agricultural production so much that it will remove over a decade of our carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.
These results were calculated by analysing and mapping areas where extension production of animal-based foods has suppressed native vegetation. Currently, the area required to produce meat and dairy uses up 83% of the world’s agricultural land – land that could be freed up for ecosystems to regrow and offset our carbon emissions in the process.
“The greatest potential for forest regrowth, and the climate benefits it entails, exists in high- and upper-middle income countries, places where scaling back on land-hungry meat and dairy would have relatively minor impacts on food security,” said Matthew Hayek of NYU, the lead author of the study.
We can think of shifting our eating habits toward land-friendly diets as a supplement to shifting energy, rather than a substitute. Restoring native forests could buy some much-needed time for countries to transition their energy grids to renewable, fossil-free infrastructure.Matthew Hayek, Lead Author, NYU
Specifically, the authors found that vegetation regrowth could remove as much as 9 to 16 years of global fossil fuel carbon emissions if demand for meat and its corresponding land requirements were to plummet in the coming decades. This reduction would mean a doubling in our planet’s rapidly shrinking carbon budget.
“We can think of shifting our eating habits toward land-friendly diets as a supplement to shifting energy, rather than a substitute,” explained Hayek. “Restoring native forests could buy some much-needed time for countries to transition their energy grids to renewable, fossil-free infrastructure.”
Ultimately, the researchers believe that their findings can help countries plan out where to begin restoring ecosystems while making considerations to the affecting the cultural and economic significance of animal agriculture to certain local farming communities.
Restoring native vegetation on large tracts of low yield agricultural land is currently our safest option for removing CO2. There’s no need to bet our future solely on technologies that are still unproven at larger scales.Helen Harwatt, Co-Author, Harvard Law School
“Land use is all about tradeoffs,” said co-author Nathan Mueller from Colorado State University. “Our findings can help target places where restoring ecosystems and halting ongoing deforestation would have the largest carbon benefits.”
While some have looked to tech-forward solutions such as carbon capture technology to solve our climate crisis, the researchers argue that their findings prove that immediate action can be done with major impacts to help alleviate our environmental footprint.
“Restoring native vegetation on large tracts of low yield agricultural land is currently our safest option for removing CO2,” said co-author Helen Harwatt of Harvard Law School. “There’s no need to bet our future solely on technologies that are still unproven at larger scales.”
Moreover, reduced meat production would also mean helping improve water stress, wildlife habitat and protect biodiversity, all of which helps reduce the risks of future pandemics.
“Our research shows that there is potential for giving large areas of land back to wildlife. Restoring native ecosystems not only helps the climate; when coupled with reduced livestock populations, restoration reduces disease transmission from wildlife to pigs, chickens, and cows, and ultimately to humans,” said Harwatt.
Lead image courtesy of Unsplash / designed by Green Queen Media.