The 2050 Challenge: climate change cannot be reversed by adjusting our diets

We have all seen the headlines: change your diet and help the planet. However, the idea that reducing meat and dairy consumption is a primary mitigation strategy against climate change needs to be debunked writes Dr María Sánchez Mainar of the International Dairy Federation (IDF).

Nearly one in four (23.5%) Belgians say they eat less animal source foods because of their potential climate impact. But is the movement towards plant-based foods actually having an impact on our planet? In addressing this, we must first acknowledge that all human actions, including the production of food, have an impact on the environment. We cannot ignore emissions from the livestock sector, but their comparison to the main emission sources - the use of fossil fuels - would put us on a wrong path to finding solutions.

In fact, the dairy sector has one of the smallest carbon footprints per unit of animal product in the world. Producing milk and indirectly meat, accounts for only 4% percent of all GHG emissions originated by human activities. The sector has been pioneering on the challenge to reduce environmental impact and by its own initiative has set ambitious targets of GHG reduction in many countries and has committed to further reducing carbon emissions per kg of protein produced.

Dairy’s biggest emission is largely methane gas (produced by rumination, manure, feed production, land-use change, transport and processing). But fortunately, methane behaves as part of a cycle. It is true that methane is more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2, but unlike CO2, methane gas diminishes rapidly over a few decades. This is because chemical reactions cause it to be removed from the atmosphere, unlike the CO2 produced by fossil fuels. In fact, the conventional addition of methane to the rest of the GHG as a CO2-equivalent misrepresents the warming created by this gas.

Climate warming not reversible through food adaptation

A person who chooses to consume an exclusively vegan diet for a year reduces his or her CO2 emissions by 0.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent compared to someone who consumes a balanced diet that includes dairy and meat products. However, one transatlantic flight emits 1.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

If all Americans were to stop eating animal products, the total US emissions would decrease by only 2.6%, making a difference of 0.5% worldwide. In that case, however, the country would no longer be able to meet all nutritional needs with only domestic production. That average is higher worldwide, partly because Western production systems are generally much more efficient than what can be found in, for example, in India and Sub-Saharan Africa, and because our high standard of living results in higher CO2 emissions from other sources.

Not enough agricultural land available to sustain the global population Many critics of animal agriculture are quick to point out that if farmers raised only plants, they could produce more food and calories per person. Yet, animal source foods deliver a wide range of valuable, highly bioavailable nutrients that are not easily obtained from plant materials. Moreover, the land to sustain this is simply not available.

One fourth of global agricultural area consists of non-convertible pastures and rangelands also referred to as “marginal land”. If we were to exclude livestock from food production, we would leave marginal land that can only be dedicated to ruminant grazing unexploited. Renowned expert in the field of air quality improvement Professor Dr. Frank Mitloehner, Department of Animal Sciences at the University of California, Davis (USA) used this analogy at a recent IDF event:

“If the entire surface of the earth was an A4 sheet, the amount of land and ice is just the size of a postcard, and the share of land that is suitable for agriculture is only as large as a business card. Only about a third of this business card is suitable for growing plants. These relationships do not change, but the number of people on earth is increasing spectacularly. It is therefore impossible for us to throw away two thirds of our available land if we want to feed the world's population in 2050."

Recent figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation show that the number of people suffering from malnutrition has been rising again since 2014 after years of decline. If we are to address the challenge of providing enough food to nourish a growing world population, sustainably produced meat and dairy must be part of the solution.

Supporting information

About IDF: Helping nourish the world with safe and sustainable dairy

The International Dairy Federation (IDF) is the leading source of scientific and technical expertise for all stakeholders of the dairy chain. Since 1903, IDF has provided a mechanism for the dairy sector to reach global consensus on how to help feed the world with safe and sustainable dairy products. A recognized international authority in the development of science-based standards for the dairy sector, IDF has an important role to play in ensuring the right policies, standards, practices and regulations are in place to ensure the world’s dairy products are safe and sustainable.

About The Role of Ruminants in Sustainable Diets event, 21 June 2019, Brussels, Belgium

During this scientific outreach, high-level international speakers reported on the latest science to correctly assess the nutritional and environmental implications of ruminant livestock. This event attracted an international audience of over 200 participants both from the dairy sector or from other organizations based in Brussels. Click below to watch the talks:

  • Watch Part 1 : Prof. Frederic Leroy (BAMST President), Andrew Mente (PHRI, CA) & Prof. Frank Mitloehner (UC Davis, US)
  • Watch Part 2 : Dr. Anne Mottet (FAO of the UN) & Dr. Judith Bryans (IDF President)
  • Watch Part 3 : Andrea Bertaglio (Env journalist, IT), Dr. Michelle Cain (Oxford Martin, UK), Prof. Martin Scholten (WRU, NL) & Jean-Louis Peyraud (INRA, FR) & Dr. Nico Peiren (ILVO, BE)

For bios of the speakers go to our event website.

About Dr María Sánchez Mainar

María is a Food Scientist (PhD) and a Veterinarian (DVM). She is IDF Science and Standards Programme Manager with a focus on the areas of Sustainability and Standards. She manages the IDF scientific programme on Animal Health and Welfare, Farm Management, Antimicrobial Resistance, Environment and Sustainability as well as the area of Dairy Science and Technology.

Prof. Dr. Frank Mitloehner

Frank Mitloehner is a professor and specialist in the field of air quality improvement at the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of California, Davis (USA). He specializes in the measurement and mitigation of greenhouse gases, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and suspended particles and the study of their effects on the environment and on human and animal health and welfare. His laboratory investigates the link between agricultural productivity and sustainability. In the past year he has been a very influential protagonist in the global sustainability debate worldwide, where he has actively taken action against misinformation regarding livestock, both in the academic and public spheres and at policy level.

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About Dr María Sánchez Mainar

María is a Food Scientist (PhD) and a Veterinarian (DVM). She is IDF Science and Standards Programme Manager with a focus on the areas of Sustainability and Standards. She manages the IDF scientific programme on Animal Health and Welfare, Farm Management, Antimicrobial Resistance, Environment and Sustainability as well as the area of Dairy Science and Technology.

Prof. Dr. Frank Mitloehner

Frank Mitloehner is a professor and specialist in the field of air quality improvement at the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of California, Davis (USA). He specializes in the measurement and mitigation of greenhouse gases, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and suspended particles and the study of their effects on the environment and on human and animal health and welfare. His laboratory investigates the link between agricultural productivity and sustainability. In the past year he has been a very influential protagonist in the global sustainability debate worldwide, where he has actively taken action against misinformation regarding livestock, both in the academic and public spheres and at policy level.

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