Transitioning to a meatless food system over the next 15 years

Can the World transition to a meatless plant-based food system over the next 15 years? If so we could prevent enough greenhouse gas emissions to effectively cancel out emissions from all other economic sectors for the next 30 to 50 years. Transitioning to a meat-less food system over the next 15 years. Today one-third of Earth’s land is used to feed or house farmed animals. But if everything we ate was directly derived from plants, we’d only need to use 7 percent of it.

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According to new research published today in the journal PLOS ClimateThe paper’s authors say such a shift would “substantially alter the trajectory of global warming,” as animal agriculture is estimated to account for around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Pat Brown, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University and the founder and CEO of the plant-based meat company Impossible Foods, and Michael Eisen, a professor of genetics and development at the University of California Berkeley, modeled the long-term “climate opportunity cost” of continuing business-as-usual meat and dairy production.

First, they calculated the effects of ending animal agriculture — and the high levels of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide emissions it generates — and replacing it with a plant-only food system. 

But direct emissions aren’t animal agriculture’s only contribution to climate change; 30 percent of the Earth’s land is used to either raise farmed animals or to grow crops to feed them. The report’s authors model that restoring or “rewilding” all of that land to ecological health would create a massive carbon sink, capturing and storing carbon that otherwise would’ve added to climate change.

“There is an amazing potential to do something that no other existing scalable technology has, which is to actually reduce atmospheric levels of all three major greenhouse gases [methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide],” said Eisen. “[It’s] something we have to do.”

A 15-year phase-out of meat and dairy is almost certainly not going to happen. And it’s worth noting that a massive shift to plant-based eating would financially benefit Brown and Eisen. Brown’s Impossible Foods is a highly valued maker of plant-based beef, pork, and chicken, while Eisen is an adviser for the company. Both are shareholders in the company. The authors disclose their conflicts in the paper.

Transitioning to a meat less food system over the next 15 years

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Despite the financial conflict of interest, the science appears solid, according to Matthew Hayek, an assistant environmental studies professor at New York University and a recent Vox contributor.

Brown said he encourages skepticism. “You should be skeptical, and you should take into account any conflict of interest for authors. I always do that,” he said. “But the great thing about it is, you can check the data analysis, and you can do it yourself.”

While the financial stakes are meaningful for Brown, the planetary stakes are high for everyone. Research has found that even if we eliminate all fossil fuel use (and emissions from other sectors), the world will not reach the Paris climate agreement’s target of keeping the increase in global temperature to 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

In other words, reducing meat and dairy production isn’t just a nice-to-have in the effort to avert the worst effects of climate change, it’s a significant part of the global toolbox. 

It’s obvious but has to be restated: A 15-year phase-out of meat and dairy production is something that is only likely to happen in an academic model. It would be logistically impossible, and it would require significant state action, which is a political nonstarter; regulating meat production and consumption is universally politically toxic.

But the study serves more usefully as a thought experiment, illustrating meat and dairy’s enormous carbon footprint, how much humanity would benefit from shifting to plant-based eating, and, hopefully, spurring efforts to reimagine how we produce protein with a growing global population that is eating more meat each year.

It’s a challenge governments and corporations — and the consumers who keep eagerly eating more meat — have largely ignored at our peril, producing ever more burgers, wings, and bacon and racking up a climate tab future generations will be left to pay.

The messy mechanics of shifting diets

Brown and Eisen’s research is new in that it looks at the emissions savings from globally phasing out meat and dairy and how it would, in essence, cancel out the yearly forecasted increase in total greenhouse gases from all other sources, like energy and transportation, for 30 to 50 years.

But how exactly would such a phase-out even work for much of the global poor who rely on livestock production for survival and want to eat much more meat? That critical question gets some attention in the study, but not a thorough investigation.

The authors state that “substantial global investment will be required to ensure that the people who currently make a living from animal agriculture do not suffer when it is reduced or replaced.” But it’s unclear where such substantial investment would come from.

Aside from the logistical and political impossibility of phasing out meat and dairy production in 15 years, rewilding the land used to house and feed farmed animals would also be met with steep economic and political obstacles.

We’d still need land to support a plant-based food system, but far less, according to Brown and Eisen. Right now, about one-third of Earth’s land is used to feed or house farmed animals, but if everything we ate was directly derived from plants, Brown and Eisen say we’d only need to use 7 percent of it.

Near-term solutions to increase plant-based eating

To be sure, consumers are showing excitement about plant-based foods, thanks in part to more realistic-tasting replicas of burgers, eggs, and poultry made by Impossible Foods and other startups.  

The plant-based industry is growing rapidly and Big Food is eager to get in on the action by adding those replica products to fast-food menus and grocery store shelves. 


But that’ll only affect emissions by so much — Big Food isn’t committing to reduce meat and dairy production in the way that large automakers are transitioning their gas-powered fleets to electric.

Plant-based meat prices are coming down but the impact on sales may not be as big as plant-based boosters would hope, according to research from the Breakthrough Institute, a tech-focused environmental think tank.

However, the organization says that while the politics of meat feel quite fixed today, large improvements in taste and price could weaken the political, corporate, and social barriers against widespread adoption.

Eventually, governments will need to craft policy to change meat and dairy production in order to reach climate targets. Influencing consumer behavior, and what’s available on fast-food menus and grocery store shelves will be critical, but can only do so much. —Kenny Torrella,

Project Beyond Impossible

Creating a cleaner greener factory farmless world by 2030

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