The key findings of a United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) special report on the influence of food choices on nitrogen emissions and the European environment were released at a press conference on Friday 25 April. They claim that halving the amount of meat and dairy eaten in Europe could slash nitrogen pollution from agriculture, improve health and boost food exports.
The report, co-authored by IES scientist A. Leip, quantifies, for the first time, how much our food choices affect pollutant nitrogen emissions, climate change and land-use across Europe. It shows how much cutting down on meat and dairy in our diets would reduce nitrogen pollution of air and water, and greenhouse gas emissions, while freeing up large areas of farmland for other purposes such as food export or bioenergy.
While nitrogen is an abundant element that occurs naturally in all organisms, it is also introduced artificially through fertilisation to replace nutrients in soil that have been removed during plant growth. Excess nitrogen can lead to air, water and soil pollution, adding to global warming and eutrophication.
80% (6.5-8 million tonnes) of all reactive nitrogen emissions in the EU comes from agriculture, with the majority of these being linked to livestock production chains. Nitrogen losses per unit of food protein from beef are 25 times those from cereals, and nitrogen use efficiency of meat and dairy products is much lower than for plant-based commodities.
The report analyses various diet scenarios, and finds that if EU consumers halve their meat and animal product intake (the demitarian diet option), nitrogen emissions could be cut by 40% and greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40%. Such a diet would also be beneficial from a personal health perspective, reducing the European consumption of saturated fats to within levels recommended by the World Health Organization and cutting the risk of heart disease and cancer. Because around 80% of nitrogen in crops (including grass from grazing) are fed to livestock, reducing meat and dairy consumption would free up land for other crops or biofuels, and could massively increase our cereal exports (from 3 to over 170 million tonnes) and slash soya bean imports to the EU by around three-quarters.
The full report, the result of the work of the Expert Panel on Nitrogen and Food of the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen under the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CRLTAP), will be published in May. IES scientist A. Leip is a member of the Expert Panel.
On Friday, the authors also published a scientific paper in Global Environmental Change entitled ‘Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake’, which gives some details of the analysis being published in the full report in May.
- Nitrogen pollution, climate and land use: why what we eat matters
- Westhoek H., Lesschen J.P., Rood T., WagneraS., De Marco A., Murphy-Bokern D., Leip A., van Grinsven H., Sutton M.A., Oenema O. (2014): Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake Global Environment Change. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.02.004
- Leip A., Weiss F., Lesschen J.P. and Westhoek, H. (2013): The nitrogen footprint of food products in the European Union Journal of Agricultural Science. doi:10.1017/S0021859613000786
- Assessing Nitrogen to help reduce its environmental impacts
- Livestock greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potential in Europe
- IES contribution to European Nitrogen Research
- Finding the best options to mitigate nitrogen water pollution from agriculture
- The water footprint of the EU for different diets
- Healthier diets can lead to greater water savings across all EU regions