Scientists say eating less beef will limit climate change

If Swedish researchers have their way, consumers will be radically changing their diets

European scientists from Chalmers University of Technology Sweden suggest consumers should stop eating so much beef and dairy and limit climate change. The new study concludes eating beef and dairy products create too much methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), which is blamed for global warming.

SCIENCEDIRECT published the study in February, claiming if consumers in Sweden cut beef consumption by 50%, the European Union would attain its global climate change goals by 2050. The goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions which would keep the climate temperature from increasing 3.40F, or 20 Celsius.

The study claims beef production accounts for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. It concludes that methane and nitrous oxide emissions can be cut by nearly 50% if there are deep cuts in beef consumption.

Continued high consumption of pork and poultry, according to the study, is still feasible.

The Swedish researchers concluded “Technologically, agriculture can improve in productivity and through implementation of specific mitigation measures.” One conclusion is “…dietary changes will almost certainly be necessary. Large reductions, by 50% or more, in ruminant meat…consumption are most likely, unavoidable if the EU targets are to be met. High dairy consumption, however, is only compatible with the targets if there are substantial advances in technology.”

The news media, in discussing climate change mitigation efforts, has focused on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel use. Deforestation in South America and Southeast Asia also garners attention because fossil fuel use and deforestation accounts for approximately ¾ of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Swedish researchers believe, however, that focusing on these two contributors will not be enough to reach the global 2 degree Celsius reduction target. Hence, methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture become major targets in slowing the effects of climate change.  

The report suggests four options for reducing methane and nitrous oxide. They are: (1) Increase in agricultural productivity and efficiency (e.g. of nitrogen use); (2) implementation of specific technology options (e.g., low-emitting manure storage); (3) change of human diets towards less emission-intensive food; and (4) reduction of food waste.

The report describes diets as greatly affecting greenhouse gas emission levels. They claim ruminant meat (beef and mutton) “…causes particularly high emissions, far higher than most other types of food.” Alternative diets

In order to meet climate emission goals in 2015, the researchers created 5 alternative diet scenarios.  These scenarios require less production of greenhouse gas production because this group accounts for about 90% of food-related CH4 (methane) and N2O (nitrous oxide) emissions, and technological options for these are more limited and costly compared to CO2 mitigation from fossil fuels.

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The 5 alternative diets which scientists claim will allow climate control goals to be met are as follows:

Less Meat: meat consumption is decreased by 50%. Legumes, oils and cereals are increased to maintain protein and fats levels

Dairy Beef: all beef except that from the dairy sector is replaced by poultry meat

Vegetarian: meat is replaced by legumes, eggs and significant quantities of cheese

Climate Carnivore: no consumption of ruminant products; however, they are replaced by poultry meat and pork; Dairy products are replaced by soy milk.

Vegan: no animal products are consumed; these products are replaced by soy products, vegetable oils, legumes, nuts, seeds and cereals.

The Swedish researchers claim if their diets and technology levels are followed, these low emitting diets will require less land use. The researchers believe that our current diet and the demand for biofuels requires up to 25% of the current land in use to produce food. The researchers claim their findings are for conditions in Sweden but likely are good recommendations for the European Union as well.

The report’s main point is “Deep cuts, by 50% or more, in ruminant meat (beef and mutton) consumption…is the only dietary change that with high certainty is unavoidable if the EU climate targets are to be met.”
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