Changing Agriculture Land Use Could Slash Carbon Emissions

Nearly 1/3 of emissions come from agricultural systems

Shifting from meat-heavy to plant-based eating can lead to substantial emissions reduction for wealthy countries, according to a new study. Rewilding the farmland once used to graze animals can create a double climate benefit: researchers calculated that countries could slash their agricultural emissions by 61% by following a standardized plant-based diet, then sequester nearly 100 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by letting the additional land go back to its natural state.

"Imagine if half of the public in richer regions cut half the animal products in their diets," study author Dr. Paul Behrens said in the media release. "You're still talking about a massive opportunity in environmental outcomes and public health."

Why This Matters

About a third of all climate-damaging emissions worldwide come from agricultural systems, so making changes to multiple parts of the process could contribute considerable progress toward global carbon reduction goals. In order to sustain current levels of meat consumption, as much as 80% of farmland is used for grazing livestock. That land could instead be used directly for growing food. As the study authors note, "linking land, food, climate, and public health policy" is key to a more sustainable future. However, global trends currently point in the other direction: the meat industry is growing, not shrinking.

Across the world, three-quarters of all agricultural land is used to raise animals or the crops to feed them. (Source: Meat Atlas 2021/OECD, FAO.)

Sentient Media: Food System Emissions - How Can We Reduce Our Carbon Footprint?, June 18, 2021.

Meat Emissions Rank Higher Than Entire Countries

To put the scale of meat and milk farm emissions in perspective: 20 milk and livestock companies collectively produce more greenhouse gas emissions than countries like Britain, France, and Germany. Just the five of those largest producers are responsible for an equal amount of climate-damaging emissions as Exxon.

Transforming the agricultural sector away from meat will require both system-level policy changes and individual habit shifts. In other words: it will take more than a company developing an especially tasty vegan burger.

As Stanka Becheva, a food and agriculture campaigner working with Friends of the Earth, told the Guardian: "This is all for-profit and is not really addressing the fundamental issues we see in the current animal protein-centerd food system that is having a devastating impact on climate, biodiversity and is actually harming people around the globe."

Meat Atlas 2021: Facts and figures about the animals we eat (teaser), September 8, 2021.

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union: Launch of the Meat Atlas 2021: Facts and figures about the animals we eat, September 8, 2021.