A quarter of the world’s tropical land could disappear by the end of the century if global demand for animal products continues to grow

The production of animals has the highest footprint in terms of agricultural land use and a reduction in meat and dairy consumption can help protect natural land in regions of the world that harbour high numbers of species.


                            A quarter of the world’s tropical land could disappear by the end of the century if global demand for animal products continues to grow

A quarter of the world’s tropical land could disappear by the end of the century unless meat and dairy consumption is reduced, warn researchers. Meat and dairy production is associated with higher land and water use, and higher greenhouse gas emissions than any other food. 

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, UK, and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, estimate that by 2100, under a business-as-usual scenario -- in which the shift towards animal products continues as incomes rise --  9% or 984 million hectares of global natural land will be lost, of which 95% will be in the tropics - equivalent to 24% of natural land in these latitudes.

By changing global dietary habits and reducing animal products with plant-based alternatives, researchers predict the worldwide demand for agricultural land could be reduced by 11%.

“Reducing meat and dairy consumption will be beneficial for biodiversity and climate change. The work shows that if current dietary patterns of increasing animal product consumption continue, then large areas of natural land in highly biodiverse regions of the world could be lost to agricultural expansion and polluted by agricultural intensification. If we reduce global animal product consumption, we can stem this loss of natural land in these regions. The implications are that for a more sustainable future, reducing meat and dairy consumption will be necessary,” lead author of the study, Dr. Roslyn Henry from the University of Edinburgh, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

She explains that the production of animals has the highest footprint in terms of agricultural land use and their findings show that a reduction in meat and dairy consumption can help protect natural land in regions of the world that harbour high numbers of species.

Dr. Henry adds, “Since meat and dairy production is associated with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and if we wish to limit global warming to well below 2ºC, if not 1ºC, a dietary change that includes shifting away from animal products towards more plant-based diets will be required,”

The Paris Agreement on climate change aims at keeping the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with an ambition of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

The study follows the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released on August 8, which calls for significant improvements in the way food is produced and managed. Stating that some dietary choices need more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others, the IPCC report recommends a balanced diet, with more focus on plant-based foods.

The IPCC report also says that agriculture, forestry, and other land use activities accounted for around 13% of carbon dioxide, 44% of methane, and 82% of nitrous oxide emissions from human activities globally during 2007-2016, representing 23% of the total global greenhouse emissions. 

By changing global dietary habits and reducing animal products with plant-based alternatives, researchers predict that the worldwide demand for agricultural land could be reduced by 11%. (Getty Images)

According to the current study, 65% of agricultural expansion in recent decades has been associated with increased production of animal products, and land-use changes related to animal husbandry account for roughly 30% of current global biodiversity loss.

“Livestock production is increasing most rapidly in tropical regions with high biodiversity. The tropics are also experiencing the highest rates of species extinction. If current trends in animal product consumption continue, and if industrialized countries do not reduce high rates of meat consumption, it is estimated that one billion additional hectares of natural land will be cleared for agriculture by 2050,” says the study published in Global Environmental Change.

The researchers studied the impact of consumption trends on biodiverse regions - areas that have a wealth of mammals, birds, amphibians, and plant life. They found that rapid increases in meat and milk production result in sharp rises in land clearing in tropical regions that have high levels of biodiversity. Analysis by the team shows that the most threatened regions - locations with high biodiversity under pressure from agricultural expansion - are in the tropics.

Conversely, they found that reduced animal product consumption would result in a 7% or 703 million hectares increase in global natural land between 2010–2100, with lower losses across the tropics, and increases in natural land across the northern hemisphere. 

“Deforestation and land clearing for agriculture have been identified as the leading causes of biodiversity decline. Therefore, the potential for dietary change to reduce the global agricultural land area by approximately 1687 million hectares by 2100 (11% of global land area) is an important finding for biodiversity conservation,” state the findings. 

According to the researchers, meat - beef and lamb in particular - is inefficient to produce. “Livestock needs lots of space to graze, and growing demand for meat products leads to the clearing of natural land and forests to make way for more grazing land. Similarly, for livestock reared using feed, large areas of natural land are often cleared to grow crops to produce this feed,” Dr. Henry told MEAWW.

As incomes increase across the globe, consumption has shifted from staples such as starchy roots and pulses to meat, milk, and refined sugars, says the team. “If we look at historical trends, we find that rising incomes typically results in greater consumption of meat and dairy products. Currently, the highest consumption of meat is found in wealthy western countries. However, as average incomes rise in other parts of the world, such as China, we see rapid increases in meat and dairy consumption,” says Dr. Henry.

The research team further says that there is a growing body of evidence that indicates high levels of red and processed meat in diets is associated with a higher risk of developing diseases such as coronary heart disease, bowel cancer, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

For example, a study published recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA), stated that diets that are higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods, was associated with a lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease deaths and all-cause mortality. “Substituting some of the meat in our diets for plant-based alternatives may help to address this,” Dr. Henry told MEAWW.

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