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UN says a ‘demitarian’ diet is better for the planet than veganism

In a recent study, researchers found that halving meat and dairy consumption could have a greater impact on cutting nitrogen pollution than foregoing animal products altogether.

Last year, it was revealed that the agriculture industry is responsible for about a quarter of our total greenhouse gas emissions, the main contributor being livestock and fisheries.

Yet although the drastic environmental impact of meat and dairy production has been at the forefront of the climate conversation for some time now, little has been done to address it – at least from a top down level, that is.

Most often, the solutions posed are targeted towards the individual, encouraging consumers to ‘give Veganuary a go’ or experiment with Meat Free Mondays.

For this reason – and in light of findings that cutting meat and dairy products from our diets could reduce our personal carbon footprints by up to 73 per cent – many deem veganism a silver bullet in the face of the ongoing ecological emergency.

Amid recent reports that fake meat sales are plummeting and the coinciding reignition of the ‘plant-based fad’ debate, however, people have started questioning whether replacing the dearth or meat and dairy in the average person’s diet with substitutes is truly a sure-fire way to fight the climate crisis.

And according to a new study for the United Nations (UN), they may well be onto something. As researchers uncovered, a ‘demitarian’ diet, which involves halving meat and dairy consumption rather than foregoing animal products altogether, is actually more effective at cutting nitrogen pollution than veganism.

But why nitrogen? On a regular basis, information regarding the agriculture industry’s contribution to global warming focuses on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted during the process of getting a single piece of steak to the dinner table.

However, scientists and world leaders have recently begun pointing to nitrogen as the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ in the fight to prevent further temperature increases, referencing the fact that it’s heavily concentrated on livestock farms, where animal manure is stored and treated in great quantities.

Considering that, across the globe, we consume around 350 million tonnes of meat annually, that’s a whole lotta biodiversity-destroying nitrogen being pumped into the atmosphere.

And, unlike methane, which is 28 times more potent but only lasts in the atmosphere for about 12 years, nitrogen hangs around for over one hundred.

With this in mind, and the acute understanding that encouraging the entire population to quit eating meat and dairy once and for all is an impossible feat, Appetite for Change (which is a collation of data from experts at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), the European Commission, Copenhagen Business School, and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in the Netherlands) proposes demitarianism as the solution.

It states that current inefficiencies in farms, retail, and wastewater practices mean that the nitrogen use efficiency of the food system in Europe is only 18 per cent, leaving most of the remainder leaking into air, water and soils where it transforms into various harmful polluting forms including ammonia, nitrous oxide, and nitrate.

‘Our analysis finds that a broad package of actions including a demitarian approach (halving meat and dairy consumption) scored most highly in looking to halve nitrogen waste by 2030,’ says Professor Mark Sutton of UKCEH.

He explains that the protein consumption of the average person in Europe greatly exceeds the recommendations of the World Health Organisation, and that a balanced diet with 50 per cent less meat and dairy would also improve nutrition and make people healthier, averting potential pandemics in the future.

‘Freeing up land to restore habitats would help tackle the climate and biodiversity crises,’ adds lead-author Dr Adrian Leip of the European Commission.

‘The unprecedented rise of energy, fertiliser and food prices since 2021 underlines the need to address the vulnerability of the current food system. Plant-based diets require less land and fertilisers, reduce energy use and increase our resilience to the current multi-crises: food, energy, climate.’