A relatively small switch to eating more plant proteins has outsized benefits for climate, nature and water, a new report by research consultancy Profundo commissioned by environmental group Madre Brava shows.
The report estimated that in countries where consumption of meat is above recommended levels  substituting 30% of beef, pork and chicken with a mix of whole foods and novel plant-based meat products could lead to net savings of 728 million tonnes of CO2e a year. This is equivalent to offsetting almost all emissions from global air travel in 2022 . Moreover, the shift would free up 3.4 million sq. km of farmland, an area the size of India, land that can be returned to nature to boost biodiversity and absorb carbon emissions.
Due to livestock’s enormous water usage, this modest 30% switch to plant proteins would also save 18.9 cubic kilometres of water. This is the equivalent to 7.5 million Olympic-size swimming pools worth of water every year.
Nico Muzi, managing director of Madre Brava, said: “In the current context of the triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity, the benefits of a modest switch to plant proteins are huge. The current food system incentivizes producing and selling huge amounts of industrial meat, rather than more sustainable, healthier proteins. We need to turn the tide for our health and the health of our planet. Governments and food retailers can play a critical role in ensuring that sustainable proteins are the cheapest, easiest choice for consumers when doing their food shop.”
In terms of animal welfare, the 30% shift to plant proteins would save the lives of 100 million cows, 420 million pigs and over 22 billion chickens per year. This is equivalent to sparing all the cows alive today in the United States.
Plant protein production, in general, uses a tiny fraction of land compared to animal meat production, thus drastically reducing deforestation and protecting biodiversity. Moreover, plant protein production uses a lot less water, causes less water and air pollution, eliminates the risks of antibiotic resistance and zoonotic pandemics and lowers public health burdens associated with red meat consumption .
Overconsumption of red meat is highest in North America, Europe and South America
The projected shift to plant proteins modelled by Profundo applies only to the regions of the world with meat consumption above that recommended by widely accepted health and science assessments. For instance, Americans and Canadians eat six times as much red meat as recommended by leading health scientists and nutritionists at EAT-Lancet, while EU and UK citizens as well as Argentinians and Brazilians eat four times as much.
Thus, the 30% switch from meat to plant alternatives is moderate as people will still be able to eat more red meat than recommended by health experts.
Meat consumption around the globe has increased dramatically in the past few decades. High rates of meat consumption are concentrated in a few regions: more than 100 kilograms (kg) per person per year in countries like the United States, Australia, Argentina, and Brazil; an average of 75kg in the EU and the UK; and less than 5 kg in India, Bangladesh or Burundi.
Global production will continue to grow in the next decade, offsetting most gains from efficiency and intensification
Global meat production increased by 19% in just ten years from 2011 to 2021. Despite forecasts of demand for meat to plateau in rich nations, a growing world population, increasing incomes in developing economies and a higher life expectancy will lead to further global meat consumption rises in the years to come. Under FAO-OECD’s latest projections, global poultry consumption is forecasted to increase by 15% in the ten years to 2032; pork consumption is expected to grow by 11%; and beef by 10%.
Climate scientists agree that the only way that we stand to achieve Paris goals is if we drastically reduce the production and consumption of industrial meat. To date, strategies have focused largely on improving the efficiency of production to reduce the emissions intensity of livestock products. And while these strategies – such as changing the enteric fermentation process in ruminant animals that produce methane, a super climate-warming gas – are important, they are not enough to align food systems with Paris goals.
“Even the most optimistic estimates of emissions reductions from intensification and efficiency measures are not enough to bring protein production in line with climate goals. As such, structural solutions focused on making sustainable proteins the cheapest, easiest choice for consumers are critical,” Nico Muzi concluded.
Going meat-free two days a week in the EU and the UK has outsized environmental benefits while still eating twice as much red meat as recommended
Meat-free Mondays…and Tuesdays? If EU and UK citizens decide to go meat-free for two days a week, it could have huge benefits for the health of our planet, according to the Profundo research.
Making Mondays and Tuesdays meat-less in the UK and the EU and replacing it with a mix of whole vegetal proteins and novel plant-based meat could save 81 million tonnes of CO2e. This is equivalent to removing almost one quarter (65 million) of all cars from EU and UK roads today.
The moderate plant shift could also free up an area bigger than the entire United Kingdom (270,000 sq km) and save 2.2 cubic km of water – or 880,000 swimming pools worth of water each year.
Europeans eat on average 1.4kg of meat per week, which is 80% more than the world’s average. According to health scientists and nutritionists at EAT-Lancet, Europeans and British people consume more than 4 times as much red meat as healthy intake levels.
Industrial animal agriculture plays an outsized role in driving emissions in the EU food sector. Over a third (36%) of emissions linked to consumption in the EU come from food, with animal products accounting for 70% of that impact. Moreover, meat and dairy production are the single largest source of methane emissions in the EU – the type of emissions with the most immediate and concentrated impact on climate change.
Nico Muzi said: “Europeans consume four times more meat than recommended for having a balanced, healthy diet. Going meat-free two days a week will have huge environmental benefits while Europeans will still be able to eat more meat than recommended. A moderate shift to plant-based foods is not only good for our health but also good for the health of our planet.”
The world can produce 14 times more protein on the same area of land simply by switching from meat to plant alternatives
Humanity can produce 14 times more protein on the same amount of land by switching from meat to plant proteins helping to feed a growing world population in 2030, according to the new research by consultancy Profundo for environmental group Madre Brava.
Profundo modelled two competing uses for farmland to produce proteins: the production of beef or the production of a mix of plant proteins: beans, oats, peas and soybeans. The new report estimated that the same area of land can yield enough beef to satisfy the protein needs of 2% of the world’s population in 2030, or alternatively could produce enough protein crops to satisfy the protein needs of 28% of the global population in 2030.
Given that some land for rearing cattle is unsuitable for crop production (think of pastures in hilly land), the shift from beef to plant proteins could additionally liberate 1.3 million sq km. This is an area the size of France, Germany and Italy combined that can be returned to nature to absorb carbon and boost biodiversity.
“Meat is a very inefficient way of producing cheap unsustainable proteins for a growing world population. For food security reasons, world leaders should be looking at boosting the production of protein crops and reducing the production of beef.”
Livestock (meat and dairy) occupies 77% of the world’s farmland but only produces 18% of all calories and 37% of all proteins globally. Animal agriculture, mainly cattle and soy animal feed, is also the largest driver of global deforestation.