The report's lead author, Henk Westhoek,
of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, said it showed that
the nitrogen footprint of meat and dairy products was much higher than
that from plant-based food.
If everyone in the European Union halved
their meat and dairy consumption, this would cut GHGs from agriculture
by 25 to 40%, he said: "The EU could become a major exporter of food
products, instead of a major importer of, for example, soy beans.”
The co-author of the report, Professor
Mark Sutton, of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: "There
are many ways in which society could improve the way it uses nitrogen,
and this includes actions by farmers and by ourselves.
"Our new study shows that adopting a
demitarian diet [halving meat and animal products consumption] across
Europe would reduce nitrogen pollution levels by about 40%.
"One of the major barriers to action is
the international trade in food commodities. The result is that
countries fear that tackling nitrogen pollution will reduce their
international competitiveness. The present study shows that there is
huge power for pollution control in simply reducing our meat and dairy
A scientific paper in the journal Global
Environment Change gives details of the full report appearing next
month. The authors expect widespread environmental gains from a switch
towards a more plant-based diet. They write: "As agriculture is the
major source of nitrogen pollution, this is expected to result in a
significant improvement in both air and water quality in the EU."
Nor would the gains be confined to Europe,
they say. They expect the reductions in nitrogen emissions will benefit
not only the EU but the entire European continent and the world.
Both atmospheric ammonia and water-borne
nitrates cross national frontiers, so altering European diets could help
significantly to reduce international pollution, while cutting emissions
of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide (all GHGs) is globally
In addition, the authors say, the changes
in diet would also lower health risks, reducing saturated fat intake to
the maximum recommended level (in Europe the average intake is presently
42% higher) and reducing deaths from cardio-vascular disease. Animal
products account for 80% of saturated fats.
Professor Sutton told the Climate News
Network: "My sense is that the health drivers are more important than
the environmental ones on this issue. But health is very hotly
contested, and it is difficult for people to decide what constitutes the
The EU would become a net exporter of
cereals, the researchers say, and the use of soymeal would be reduced by
75%. The nitrogen use efficiency of the food system would increase from
its current 18% to between 41% and 47%, depending on choices over land
But there is a warning of the profound
consequences of such a radical move on both the economy and individuals:
"These diet-led changes in food production patterns would have a large
economic impact on livestock farmers and associated supply-chain actors,
such as the feed industry and meat-processing sector."
Across the developing world there is
evidence that increasing wealth is associated with higher levels of meat
consumption. Professor Sutton said: "Twenty years ago no-one expected
that today we'd be seeing such a big reduction in smoking.
"Europe can't tell countries like China
and India what to do. But I think if it can start cutting its
consumption of animal-based protein, there could be a ripple effect
which might affect their trajectory."
Climate News Network