Plant-based diets to positively impact carbon levels

Posted: 15 September 2020 | | No comments yet

Choosing plant-based proteins over meat and dairy products could significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, according to a recent study.

vegetables offset carbon levels

Research carried out by Oregon State University’s William Ripple with collaborators at New York University, Colorado State University and Harvard University has identified that land dedicated to rearing animals puts significant stress on native vegetation, which is vital for absorbing carbon dioxide.

Returning livestock-rearing land to plant-based agriculture would help to redress the carbon balance in the atmosphere. 

Through photosynthesis, trees and other plants absorb carbon dioxide, storing some of the carbon and releasing oxygen. If animal-based protein production is swapped for plant-based proteins, such as grains, legumes and nuts, there is huge opportunity to regrow more native vegetation that can counter years of fossil fuel emissions.

“Plant protein foods provide important nutrients while requiring a small percentage of the farm and ranch land needed to generate animal products like beef, pork and milk,” said Ripple, distinguished professor of ecology at the Oregon State College of Forestry.

Forests redress carbon balance

The scientists have found that an area roughly the size of Russia, which is currently used for animal rearing, is suppressing natural forests that could help to lessen atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in 2018 was 407.4 parts per million – higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years.

The main areas with the potential to regrow such forests are in comparatively wealthy nations, where meat and dairy cutbacks would only mildly impact food security. The scientists claim that such action would substantially contribute to capping climate change at 1.5°C above pre-industrial age levels, as called for in the 2016 Paris Agreement.

Matthew Hayek, Ripple and their collaborators Helen Harwatt of Harvard and Nathaniel Mueller of Colorado State, emphasise that their findings could help local officials who are seeking plans to mitigate climate change. The scientists acknowledge that animal-based agriculture is economically and culturally important in many areas around the globe, so are urging nations to think about balance.

“While the potential for restoring ecosystems is substantial, extensive animal agriculture is culturally and economically important in many regions around the world,” Mueller said. “Ultimately, our findings can help target places where restoring ecosystems and halting ongoing deforestation would have the largest carbon benefits.”

Pandemic prevention

Reducing meat production would also improve water quality and quantity, wildlife habitats and biodiversity, Ripple says. This includes fostering healthy ecosystems and preventing potential pandemics stemming from zoonotic disease  – a germane point in light of covid which is believed to have originated from animals.

“Intact, functioning ecosystems and preserved wildlife habitat help make the risk of pandemics smaller,” Ripple said. “Our research shows that with diet change, we have an opportunity to give large areas back to nature and wildlife with relatively minimal impacts on food security. Ecosystem restoration and reduced livestock populations could reduce zoonotic disease transmission from wildlife to chickens or pigs and ultimately to people.”