Swapping half of meat and milk products with plant-based alternatives over the next three decades could have a significant impact on climate change, a study has claimed.
Researchers said that replacing the world's meat and dairy produce with vegan substitutes up until 2050 could reduce agriculture-related emissions by almost a third (31%).
The study, published in the Nature Communications scientific journal, said such a shift would also help halt the degradation of forest and natural land.
Products such as plant-based meats could have wide-ranging effects on the battle against climate change, the authors say.
They claimed there could be further climate and biodiversity benefits from reforesting land currently used for livestock production.
The restored area could contribute up to 25% of the estimated global land restoration needed under the targets laid out by the United Nations (UN) in its Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which aims to halt and reverse nature loss.
The study's lead author, Marta Kozicka, a researcher in biodiversity at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) near Vienna, Austria, said: "Understanding the impacts of dietary shifts expands our options for reducing GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions.
"Shifting diets could also yield huge improvements for biodiversity.”
Vegan diets have one-quarter of the climate impact of meat (Yale Environment 360)
Consumers order less beef when restaurants highlight climate impact (Yahoo News UK)
Co-author Eva Wollenberg, a social scientist at the University of Vermont, said: "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.
"Yet such transitions are challenging and require a range of technological innovations and policy interventions."
The authors developed scenarios of dietary changes based on plant-based recipes for beef, pork, chicken and milk.
If people switched 50% to such plant-based recipes, the authors listed multiple significant effects, including:
- Global agricultural area could decline by 12% instead of expanding
- The decline in areas of forest and other natural land would halt almost completely
- Water use could decline by 10% instead of increasing
- Greenhouse gas emissions could decline by 31% by 2050
- Undernourishment globally could decline from 3.8% to 3.6%.
The researchers said the full environmental benefit of diet shifts can be achieved if the agricultural land spared from livestock and feed production is restored through biodiversity-minded afforestation.
People are still eating too much meat
A report last year found that consumers in the UK only eat 6% less meat per capita than in 1974 – despite the growing popularity of vegetable products and diets such as veganism.
The Social Market Foundation report urged politicians to invest in the "alternative protein" sector, including "meats" derived from plants or fermentation processes.