Climate News Network: We are what we eat? Probably – and what’s true for us is, for better or worse, true for the atmosphere too. New evidence suggests that halving the amount of animal products people eat in Europe would not only make them much healthier: it would also cut climate emissions by at least a quarter.
The executive summary of the European Nitrogen Assessment Special Report on Nitrogen and Food assesses the consequences if Europe decreased its meat and dairy consumption. It says this would cut greenhouse gases (GHGs) and air and water pollution from nitrogen, while freeing large areas of farmland for other uses, including food exports or bio-energy. Individually, Europeans would lead healthier lives. The full report is to be published in May.
The report’s lead author, Henk Westhoek, of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, said it showed that the nitrogen footprint of meat and dairy products was much higher than that from plant-based food.
If everyone in the European Union halved their meat and dairy consumption, this would cut GHGs from agriculture by 25 to 40%, he said: “The EU could become a major exporter of food products, instead of a major importer of, for example, soy beans.”
The co-author of the report, Professor Mark Sutton, of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: “There are many ways in which society could improve the way it uses nitrogen, and this includes actions by farmers and by ourselves.
“Our new study shows that adopting a demitarian diet [halving meat and animal products consumption] across Europe would reduce nitrogen pollution levels by about 40%.
“One of the major barriers to action is the international trade in food commodities. The result is that countries fear that tackling nitrogen pollution will reduce their international competitiveness. The present study shows that there is huge power for pollution control in simply reducing our meat and dairy consumption.”
A scientific paper in the journal Global Environment Change gives details of the full report appearing next month. The authors expect widespread environmental gains from a switch towards a more plant-based diet. They write: “As agriculture is the major source of nitrogen pollution, this is expected to result in a significant improvement in both air and water quality in the EU.”
Nor would the gains be confined to Europe, they say. They expect the reductions in nitrogen emissions will benefit not only the EU but the entire European continent and the world.
Both atmospheric ammonia and water-borne nitrates cross national frontiers, so altering European diets could help significantly to reduce international pollution, while cutting emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide (all GHGs) is globally important.
In addition, the authors say, the changes in diet would also lower health risks, reducing saturated fat intake to the maximum recommended level (in Europe the average intake is presently 42% higher) and reducing deaths from cardio-vascular disease. Animal products account for 80% of saturated fats.
Professor Sutton told the Climate News Network: “My sense is that the health drivers are more important than the environmental ones on this issue. But health is very hotly contested, and it is difficult for people to decide what constitutes the perfect diet.”
The EU would become a net exporter of cereals, the researchers say, and the use of soymeal would be reduced by 75%. The nitrogen use efficiency of the food system would increase from its current 18% to between 41% and 47%, depending on choices over land use.
But there is a warning of the profound consequences of such a radical move on both the economy and individuals: “These diet-led changes in food production patterns would have a large economic impact on livestock farmers and associated supply-chain actors, such as the feed industry and meat-processing sector.”
Across the developing world there is evidence that increasing wealth is associated with higher levels of meat consumption. Professor Sutton said: “Twenty years ago no-one expected that today we’d be seeing such a big reduction in smoking.
“Europe can’t tell countries like China and India what to do. But I think if it can start cutting its consumption of animal-based protein, there could be a ripple effect which might affect their trajectory.”
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