Latest research: Replacing 50% of animal foods with plant-based diets can almost stop deforestation.

A modeling study published in Nature Communications on September 12 found that replacing 50% of pork, beef, chicken and milk consumption with plant-based products could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use in 2050. A 31% reduction compared to 2020 and halting the degradation of forests and natural lands.

Replacing 50% of animal food with plants could also reduce biodiversity loss from 2.1% to 0.9% by 2050. If 90% of animal food was replaced, biodiversity loss would actually be reversed between 2030 and 2040.

The study, conducted by researchers at UVM, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Biodiversity International, and CIAT, is the first to examine the impact of large-scale plant-based meat and plant-based milk consumption on global food security and the environment.

“Understanding the impact of dietary changes can expand our options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Changing dietary habits can also significantly improve biodiversity,” said IIASA researcher Marta Kozicka, lead author of the study.

The authors found that a 50% alternative by 2050 would significantly reduce the growing impact of food systems on the natural environment. Compared to 2020, impacts will include:

The size of global agricultural area will decrease by 12% and there will be no need for continued expansion.

The reduction and invasion of forests and other natural land areas almost completely stopped.

Nitrogen inputs to cropland were nearly half of those predicted.

Instead of increasing, water consumption dropped by 10%.

Without accounting for any carbon sequestration on idle land, greenhouse gas emissions could fall by 2.1 Gt CO2eq (31%) in the first year to 2050 (average first-year reduction of 1.6 Gt CO2eq in 2020-2050).

Global malnutrition rates fell to 3.6%.

 The authors create dietary changes using plant-based recipes for raw animal-source proteins of beef, pork, chicken, and milk. These formulations are designed to be nutritionally equivalent to original animal-derived protein products and fit within existing food manufacturing capabilities and globally available production ingredients.

Environmental impacts vary widely across regions; in 50% of models, China alone is responsible for a quarter of abandoned farmland and 20% of reduced water and nitrogen use. Sub-Saharan Africa has the greatest potential to halt the loss of forests and natural lands, accounting for 37% of the global reduction in land conversion. This region, along with China and Southeast Asia, will also see the greatest declines in biodiversity loss.

“We need more than just Meatless Mondays to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change, and this study points the way forward,” said study co-author Eva Wollenberg of the University of Vermont (UVM).

“Plant-based meat is not only a new type of food, but also a significant opportunity to achieve food security and climate goals while achieving health and biodiversity goals globally. This transition is challenging and requires a range of technological innovations and policy interventions .”