Global carbon emissions could be cut by 50% by 2050 if one fifth of the world’s per-capita beef consumption is replaced with the meat substitute.

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Replacing 20% of global beef consumption with a meat substitute within the next 30 years could halve deforestation, according to a new modelling study. 

The research, published in scientific journal Nature, found that eating one fifth less beef or swapping it with microbial protein, would cut 50% of carbon emissions associated with deforestation as well as methane emissions, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, from livestock and cattle raising. 

Every year, the world loses about 10 million hectares of forests, with beef farming being the biggest driver of deforestation – an estimated 81,081 square miles of forest land is lost annually for meat production, 80% of which occurs in the Amazon. 83% of farmland is also used for livestock and their feed crops, yet the meat and dairy produced accounts for only 18% of the calories consumed by humans. Land clearing also destroys wildlife habitats, threatening global biodiversity. 

Experts say we must drive down meat production and consumption drastically to avert a climate crisis. Though more than 100 countries have pledged to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030, destruction rates remain high, especially in the Amazon. However, offering greener, meatless alternatives could help cut down the demand. 

“The food system is at the root of a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with ruminant meat production being the single largest source,” said Dr Florian Humpenöder, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany. “The good news is that people do not need to be afraid they can eat only greens in the future. They can continue eating burgers and the like, it’s just that those burger patties will be produced in a different way.”

According to Nature, previous research has shown that replacing beef with a meatless alternative called mycoprotein can have beneficial effects on the environment. The microbial protein, which can be produced from a range of microorganisms, including bacteria, is brewed in steel tanks by fermenting a soil-dwelling fungus with glucose and other nutrients as a food source – similar to a beer-making process. The end product is a protein-rich food that tastes and feels like meat, and is just as nutritious. 

The microbial protein first made its debut in the market in the 1980s in the UK under the brand name Quorn, which has since become the market leader. But there are widely more options available today in many countries. 

Researchers calculated that if 20% of the world’s per-capita beef consumption is replaced with the meat substitute, we could reduce methane emissions by 11% and deforestation and associated emissions by 50% by 2050. If we swap out 50% of the beef, that would equal more than 80% reduction in deforestation and carbon emissions, and replacing 80% of beef would eliminate about 90% of forest loss.

However, if the world remains on its current trajectory of production and consumption, or under a business-as-usual scenario, annual deforestation rates would double, as will the methane emissions and agricultural water use. 

But the study notes that there will be relatively minor changes in agricultural water use regardless of how much meat substitute we replace as the water required to grow crops for feeding cattle would go towards growing other types of crop. 

While the new findings show a pathway in which we can reduce some of the global food production’s environmental footprint, Humpenöder said this alone will not solve the climate crisis. 

“Microbial protein should not be seen as a silver bullet,” he said. “But rather as a building block in a large transformation of the whole food and agricultural system, combining it with reductions in food waste, incentives to eat healthier, and de-incentivising the sale of products with high environmental impacts.”

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