Global meat production vs plant-based food production

By: Guest contributor, Sat Nov 20 2021

Author: Guest contributor

Nature Portfolio is committed to publishing research that is rigorous, reproducible and impactful. Our dedicated in-house editorial teams tirelessly curate the best research for their journals, and, in that mission, find papers worthy of a brighter spotlight for how their findings advance their field. Our Game Changers series provides an opportunity to showcase these same developments.

In this blog post, Juliana Gil (JG), Handling Editor for Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods at Nature Food shares why this paper was important.

Q: This article describes how global production of meat causes twice the pollution of plant-based food production. Can you tell us more about the research and its impact on food systems and policy?

JG: The production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases emitted by human activity, with the use of animals for meat causing twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods.

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The research explains that food production, including the use of farming machinery, spraying of fertilizer and transportation of products, is the source of approximately 17.3bn metric tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. This enormous release of gases that fuel the climate crisis is more than double the entire emissions of the US and represents 35% of all global emissions. 

Besides showing the food production cycle in its entirety, the study also provides emission estimates for each specific stage of this cycle - as well as sub-sectors, regions and agricultural commodities. We hope that policymakers would use the results to think about how to control greenhouse gas emissions in a more targeted and efficient way.

Q: Nature Portfolio is unique in that each journal has a dedicated team of editors to handle manuscripts. Can you describe how the editorial team at Nature Food partnered with authors to get the paper published?

JG: As part of the analysis, the authors have built a database that provided a consistent emissions profile of 171 crops and 16 animal products, drawing data from more than 200 countries. Nature Food encourages the use of public repositories and open access data that can be used in future research. Besides securing constructive expert reviews that helped shape the paper, the editorial team has offered customized guidance to make the narrative compelling and accessible to a non-specialist audience.

Q: It is well-known that the raising and culling of animals for food is far worse for the climate than growing and processing fruits and vegetables for people to eat. How has this research advanced upon previous findings?  

JG: Indeed, a lot is said about the importance of changing food consumption patterns to achieve climate change mitigation targets and, broadly speaking, a more sustainable world. Plant-based diets are considered a promising alternative in that regard, but it’s hard to calculate the exact potential contribution of dietary shifts - either because data is scant or inconsistent across agricultural sub-sectors. This paper calculates this with unprecedented accuracy. The research finds that the use of cows, pigs and other animals for food, as well as livestock feed, is responsible for 57% of all food production emissions. The difference in emissions between meat and plant production is stark – to produce 1kg of wheat, 2.5kg of greenhouse gases are emitted, on average. A single kilo of beef, meanwhile, creates 70kg of emissions. Besides revealing that the impact of meat is higher than previous estimates had suggested, these results underscore the need for societies to be aware of the discrepancy between plant and meat-based diets when addressing the climate crisis. By unpacking GHG emissions by agricultural products at a fine geographic level and across agricultural practices, this study also allows for the design of targeted interventions.

Q: Aside from the climate impact of meat, what are the other research outcomes?

JG: Scientists have consistently stressed that if dangerous climate change is to be avoided, a major rethink of eating habits and farming practices is required. The climate crisis is also itself a cause of hunger, with a third of global food production at risk by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rate. It was also found that South America is the region with the largest share of animal-based food emissions, followed by south and south-east Asia and then China where increasing wealth and cultural changes have led more younger people in these countries to adopt meat-based diets. We hope that these and other conclusions will serve as an essential reference in the years to come.

Q: Lastly, at Nature Portfolio, we believe in the importance of translating science for all audiences to understand. How has this research reached beyond academia and into public discourse where conversations about climate change matter most?

JG: Our mission is to ensure that scientific results published in our journals are rapidly disseminated around the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance and relevance. The paper was covered in mainstream media such as The Guardian, CNN, El País, mainly thanks to our editors and press office teams who work with authors and journalists to ensure exceptional research is communicated accurately to as wide an audience as possible. On a personal level, it was pleasing to see the paper was also cited by the UN.

About Juliana Dias Bernardes Gil

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Juliana Dias Bernardes Gil is a Senior Editor for Nature Food, based in Berlin. Previously, she worked as a post-doctoral researcher at Boston University in the USA and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She holds an undergraduate degree in Environmental Management from the University of Sao Paulo, as well as an M.Sc. degree in Environmental Protection and Agricultural Food Production and a Ph.D. degree in Global Food Security – both from the Institute of Land Use Economics in the Tropics and Sub-tropics at the University of Hohenheim. Juliana's research interests lie in sustainable development, policy impact and integrated assessment tools combining economics, climate change, land use and equity.

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