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Study finds that one small diet change could reduce pollution by one-third: 'A critical opportunity'

"This research provides important food for thought."

"This research provides important food for thought."

Photo Credit: iStock

Research published in the journal Nature Communications has detailed just how much of a positive impact cutting meat and dairy consumption can have on the environment. 

According to scientists who authored the report, a "substantial reduction in the global environmental impacts" could be achieved by 2050 if 50% of the main animal food products — pork, chicken, beef, and milk — were replaced with plant-based alternatives.

Among the predicted outcomes, the report suggested the net reduction of forest and natural land could be almost fully halted, and heat-trapping air pollution caused by agriculture and land use could be cut by 31% compared to 2020 levels.

Furthermore, if agricultural land within forest ecosystems is allowed to recover and grow, "climate benefits could double."

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In a statement published by EurekAlert, study co-author Eva Wollenberg of the University of Vermont (UVM) said that while more needs to be done now to reduce global pollution, this study shows a path forward.

"Plant-based meats are not just a novel food product, but a critical opportunity for achieving food security and climate goals while also achieving health and biodiversity objectives worldwide," she said.

Among the other benefits of significantly cutting meat and dairy consumption, the study outlined that water use would decline by 10% instead of continuing to rise.

"Given the magnitude of benefits we show from substituting meat with plant-based alternatives for global sustainability, climate action, and human health, this research provides important food for thought for consumers, food producers, and policymakers," Wollenberg added in the statement.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 10% of planet-warming air pollution in the United States in 2021 was a result of agriculture. 

The EPA has also noted that a single cow produces between 154 and 264 pounds of methane gas — which can be 28 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide — every year. With 1.5 billion cows bred for meat production worldwide, far beyond the numbers these animals would exist at naturally, that soon adds up. 

Scientists from the Copernicus Climate Change Service have suggested 2023 is set to mark the hottest year on record, per the Guardian. Since higher temperatures lead to devastating extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and wildfires, the time to take action is now.

But even small changes in lifestyle can help reduce global meat demand and associated pollution. As EarthDay.org observed, eating one fewer burger a week can remove enough pollution equivalent to taking a car off the road for 320 miles over the course of a year. 

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