Reduction in Meat Consumption Key to Climate Crisis Resolution, Study Finds
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Shifting from high meat consumption to a plant-based diet drastically lowers the environmental harm linked to food production, according to a new climate study on diet and emissions.
The most extensive study of its kind to date, published in the journal Nature Food, says vegan diets generate 75 percent fewer climate-warming emissions, and diminish water pollution and land usage by 75 percent compared to diets containing more than 100 grams of meat daily.
The researchers also observed a 66 percent reduction in wildlife destruction and a 54 percent decrease in water consumption with a shift away from animal products.
The damaging effects of meat and dairy consumption on the planet are well-documented, and the new research further makes the case for a substantial reduction in meat intake particularly by the world’s most affluent nations.
Earlier research into diet and emissions primarily relied on model diets and average impact values of each food category. But the new research, conducted by Oxford University, scrutinized the actual diets of 55,000 U.K. residents. The study incorporated data from 38,000 farms across 119 countries to account for varying environmental impacts of specific foods produced in different methods and regions. This methodology significantly enhances the credibility of the findings.
“Our dietary choices have a big impact on the planet,” Oxford University’s Professor Peter Scarborough, the lead author of the research published in Nature Food, said in a statement. “Cutting down the amount of meat and dairy in your diet can make a big difference to your dietary footprint.”
The study revealed that the contents of the diet carried greater environmental weight than the location or production method. Prior research demonstrated that even the most eco-friendly meat — organic pork — inflicts eight times more climate damage than the most environmentally harmful plant, oilseed.
The researchers suggested that the U.K. should implement policies promoting a decrease in meat consumption to achieve its climate objectives. Despite previously imposed taxes on high-sugar beverages, government officials have refrained from dictating dietary choices.
The researchers also found that diets with low meat content (less than 50g per day) halved the environmental impact compared to high-meat diets. However, the disparities among low-meat, pescetarian, and vegetarian diets were relatively minor.
The study indicated that in order to attain sustainability in global food production, individuals in wealthier nations would need to drastically curtail their meat and dairy consumption. Technological advancements and reducing food waste alone will not sufficiently minimize the environmental impact of our food system.
“This is a significant set of findings,” said Professor Neil Ward from the University of East Anglia. “It scientifically reinforces the point made by the Climate Change Committee and the National Food Strategy over recent years that dietary shifts away from animal-based foods can make a major contribution to reducing the U.K.’s environmental footprint.”
The researchers noted a significant decrease, 93 percent, in methane emissions, in vegan diets as compared to high-meat diets. Methane is produced by ruminants including cow and sheep. The gas traps 80 times more heat than CO2 in the first 20 years after it is released. Recent research has urged for drastic cuts in methane.
“To feed a growing global population while remaining within proposed safe environmental boundaries for GHG emissions, land use, water use, water pollution, and biodiversity loss, we will need changes in diets,” the researchers wrote. “Other means to reduce the environmental impact of the food system (for example, technological advances, closing yield gaps, reducing food waste) will not be enough without major dietary change.”