When the inhabitants of the 54 richest countries switch to a mainly plant-based diet, their food production will emit more than 60 percent less CO2 annually than is currently the case. And it cuts both ways: a diet change also offers the potential to capture an extra 100 gigatons of CO2 between now and the end of the century, by restoring the original vegetation on land that is no longer used for meat production. bring. That researchers calculate from Leiden University this week in Nature Food.
The meat consumption of rich countries contributes substantially to CO2 emissions. In total, the production of food worldwide releases about 13.7 gigatons of CO2 per year, 26 percent of the total emissions. In rich countries 70 percent of food-related emissions come from animal products, in poor countries 22 percent. Consumption is even more skewed, in rich countries 6 times more meat is eaten than in poor countries.
Ten billion people
The extent to which CO2 emissions are reduced if large meat consumers switch to plant-based foods has already been calculated many times. The Leiden researchers focused specifically on the ‘double gain’ that can be achieved if the original vegetation is returned to the released land. They took the EAT-Lancet diet as a starting point for the changed meat consumption. That’s nutrition advice published in early 2019 by a committee of scientists in the journal The Lancet, which the idea is that ten billion people could eat healthy, in a way that the planet can handle well. It is a mainly plant-based diet, but there is also room for dairy (250 ml per day) and small amounts of fish and (white) meat (about 200 grams per week).
It is not possible to just plant a tree everywhere where there is no longer meat production. “Of course, not much more than grass will grow on a high Alpine meadow. But there used to be forest in other places that you can bring back,” says Arnold Tukker, professor of industrial ecology at Leiden University and involved in the research. “For all places where agriculture for meat production and livestock farming now takes place, we looked very specifically at what the natural vegetation was and calculated how much carbon can be stored above the ground in the plant or tree itself and below the ground in the roots and what what happens when that vegetation dies and is absorbed into the subsoil.”
According to a conservative calculation, by the time the vegetation is fully grown, 56 gigatons of CO2 have been captured, in a favorable calculation 144 gigatons, the researchers arrive at 98 gigatons on average. More than half of the sequestration would be in four major countries with high forage and grassland areas: the United States (26.3 percent, 26 gigatons), Australia (13.5 percent, 13 gigatons), Germany (7.7 percent, percent, 7 gigatons) and France (7.6 percent, 7 gigatons). Compensation has been made for increased consumption of protein-rich vegetable products such as soy, but changes in emissions from, among other things, transport and packaging have not been included.
There are more benefits. Native vegetation is more diverse than what is currently happening on land, which can improve biodiversity. And there are health benefits: less obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease because less meat and sugar is eaten.
This has a huge impact on the farming sector
Arnold Tukker Professor of Ecology
But bringing back natural vegetation may not be the top priority when land becomes available. Land is also needed for the production of crops for biofuel and the generation of sustainable energy. “And such a massive shift in diet also has a huge impact on the farming sector, of course, which will not go without a hitch in many countries,” says Tukker.
Then there is the human aspect. “Eating differently is in itself a climate measure that anyone can implement overnight, other than making your home natural gas or adapting your commute, the other two major sources of consumer emissions. But we live in a polarized society, if you start imposing this on people, you can just get the impression that Henk and Ingrid are being taken from their steak. And many people have the idea that this diet is less tasty, even though many chefs have long shown that it really isn’t. My hope is based on the Albert Heijns and the Jumbos of this world, that they show that plant-based food can also be easy and tasty.”