Eat your way to lower emissions

14th May 2020 | Eativity editors

Replacing half of all animal-based foods in the US diet with plant-based alternatives could reduce climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions by up to 1.6 billion metric tons by 2030, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Tulane University.

The report found that replacing half of all animal-based foods (red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy and animal-based fats) with plant-based alternatives would reduce US diet-related emissions by 35%. Based on US population projections, that would amount to a savings of 224 million metric tons per year in 2030. A reduction of 224 million metric
tons is equivalent to the annual emissions of 47.5 million passenger vehicles.

The target of a 50% reduction in animal-based foods assumes that the country’s dietary shift would occur gradually between now and 2030, resulting in an estimated cumulative emissions reduction of 1.6 billion metric tons.

And if, in addition to cutting animal-based foods by half, US consumers also reduced beef consumption by 90%, the emissions savings would be even greater, according to the study. Dietary emissions would be cut by 51%, resulting in a cumulative reduction of 2.4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. That’s a lotta gas.

“While a diet shift isn’t a silver bullet, it could play an important role in curbing climate change,” says Senior Research Specialist Martin Heller, lead author of the study.

In a 2019 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food production is a key to solving the climate crisis.

In general, animal-based foods are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions per pound than plant-based foods. Diet-related greenhouse gas emissions include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The production of beef cattle, in particular, is tied to especially high greenhouse gas emissions levels.

‘Scuse me…

Beef cattle must be fed for 18 months or more before they’re harvested, and growing all that food is an energy-intensive process. In addition, cows burp and fart lots of methane, and their manure can also release this potent greenhouse gas.

Here in Australia, livestock methane and nitrous oxide emissions account for around 10% of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Department of Agriculture. A study published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that Australia was one of the countries with the greatest potential to reduce beef-related greenhouse gas emissions,
as we are one of the world’s biggest beef-eating countries.

Meanwhile, over in New Zealand, scientists have discovered a vaccine that can be given to cattle to prevent the gut microbes that produce those methane burps – a research breakthrough that could have global significance. The same research team is also using genetics to breed sheep that produce less methane. That’s not baa-ad at all.