Environment FAQ

  1. Overview
  2. Strategy co-benefits for environmental justice
  3. Reducing human exposure to toxic compounds through food
  4. Why should I care about climate change?
  5. Climate change, diet change, and climate adaptation
  6. Climate change, diet change, and land use
  7. Isn't reducing fossil fuels enough to address climate change?
  8. Isn't soy destroying the rainforest too?
  9. Isn't palm oil destroying the rainforest too?
  10. Won't a plant-based diet require more crop land?
  11. Won't a plant-based diet require more GMOs?
  12. Won't a plant-based diet require more pesticides?
  13. Won't a plant-based diet require more water?
  14. Don't almonds require a lot of water?
  15. Don't rice fields create a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and use a lot of water?
  16. What about avocados?
  17. What about fish?
  18. Isn't a plant-based diet more expensive?
  19. What about cell-based meat?
  20. What about plant-based meat?
  21. How does cow's milk compare to plant-based alternatives?
  22. Pandemics
  23. Why can't we just change farming practices?
  24. Can't I just buy local meat?
  25. Can't I just buy organic?
  26. Can't I just buy grass fed beef?
  27. What about holistic/regeneratively grazed beef?
  28. But I heard methane is short lived and cows don't add additional warming.
  29. But I heard grasslands store more carbon than forests
  30. But I heard cows use land and crops unsuitable for humans
  31. What if we rear livestock on only grassland, crop residues, food waste, and other byproducts?
  32. What about hunting?
  33. But I heard removing animals would only reduce emissions by 2 or 3%?
  34. How much of our diet do we need to change to reach sustainability goals?
  35. Is being 100% plant-based healthy?
  36. If we change to more plant-based diets, won't we waste more food?
  37. What about fertilizer?
  38. Diet change and the USDA dietary guidelines
  39. Diet change and U.S. federal agencies
  40. Tips for universities/dining services
  41. Tips for grocery/convenience stores
  42. Tips for the home
  43. References


Raising animals for human consumption is the single largest driver of deforestation 1, habitat destruction 2, and species extinction 3 in the world. A plant-based diet is healthy 4-17, requires less greenhouse gas emissions 4-11,18-39, less land 6,8-11,30,31,33,34,36,40-43, less cropland 9,31,40,42, less water 6,8-11,31,33,34,41,43,44, less blue water 31,44-47, less energy 8,10,30,44, less fertilizer 9,44, less pesticide 44,48, less water pollution 6,30,31,49-52 , less air pollution 53-57 , costs less money 7,24,58,59, can feed more people 42,60, reduces exposure to toxic pollutants 61-67 , advances environmental justice 53,68-72 , protects biodiversity 2,3,35,41,43,73, reduces pandemic risk 74-76, and will be critical to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees 4,18-23,25-27,36,43,77, meet food demand in 2050 without deforestation 40,41, and stabilize biosphere integrity, freshwater use, and nitrogen flows 41.

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Strategy co-benefits for environmental justice

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Reducing human exposure to toxic compounds through food

A study funded by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency for the purpose of examining behaviors that influence human exposure to environmental chemicals found that "a diet high in fish and animal products results in greater exposure to persistent organic compounds and metals than does a plant-based diet because these compounds bioaccumulate up the food chain" 61. A literature review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also reached the same conclusion 67.

Unfortunately, this problem is made worse the better we get at recycling our food waste (e.g. composting and anaerobic digestion). Pathogens can be killed with the high temperatures of proper handling, but persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals can persist in the final product, and if used in agricultural soils, can be taken up again by the food system and accumulate 85.

Diet is the major human exposure pathway for some PFAS 86 and the concentration of several perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAS) in serum appears to be reduced by dietary fiber. 87

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Why should I care about climate change?

Climate change is projected to reduce food availability, force hundreds of millions of people into poverty and kill off the coral reefs 88 , which support 25% of life in the ocean 89 . Hundreds of thousands of people will die annually between 2030 and 2050 90,91 and millions will die annually by the end of the century (conservative estimates are over 9 million per year) 90. Although emissions were lower in 2020 due to pandemic-related lockdowns, reductions were still not enough to prevent CO2 concentrations from rising, and methane emissions increased more than any year in history due more to livestock than oil and gas 92. Even the pledges made by many nations, including the United States, are insufficient 77,93,94 and many nations including the United States are struggling to meet even their own pledges 94,95. By 2033 we will have used up the carbon budget to prevent climate change if we continue business as usual 96. This deadline was reiterated at a United Nations General Assembly High-level meeting 97. The IPCC's latest assessment states, "If current pledges for 2030 are achieved but no more, researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C" 77.

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Climate change, diet change, and climate adaptation

Not only can diet change reduce emissions, but it can also make us less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Taken directly from the IPCC, "Dietary change in regions with excess consumption of calories and animal-sourced foods to a higher share of plant-based foods with greater dietary diversity and reduced consumption of animal-sourced foods and unhealthy foods (as defined by scientific panels such as EAT-Lancet), has both mitigation and adaptation benefits"… "background climate-related disease burden of a population is often the best single indicator of vulnerability to climate change" … "cardiovascular diseases [CVD] comprised the largest proportion of climate-sensitive diseases" … "Climate change affects the risk of CVD through high temperatures and extreme heat" … "Unbalanced diets, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables and high in red and processed meat, are the number one risk factor for mortality globally and in most regions" ... "Reduction of red meat consumption reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer; and the consumption of more fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, cancer, and all causes of mortality" … "Globally, it is estimated that transitioning to more plant-based diets - in line with WHO recommendations on healthy eating - could reduce global mortality by 6-10% [8.1 million per year] and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29-70% [3.3-8.0 GtCO2-eq] by 2050" 90 with the vegan diets showing the most reductions 32. In the United States, a vegan diet can reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 78% (570 MtCO2-eq yr-1) and avoid over 460,000 deaths per year 7.

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Climate change, diet change, and land use

The emission reduction estimates mentioned above are likely to be conservative because the researchers "did not account for the beneficial impacts of dietary change on land use through avoided deforestation" 7. Taken from the IPCC, "When the transition to a low-meat diet reduces the agricultural area required, land is abandoned, and the re-growing vegetation can take up carbon until a new equilibrium is reached. This is known as the land-sparing effect." 32 This effect can be substantial. The IPCC mentions one study, stating "By avoiding meat from producers with above-median GHG emissions and halving animal-product intake, consumption change could free-up 21 million km2 of agricultural land and reduce GHG emissions by nearly 5 GtCO2-eq yr-1 or up to 10.4 GtCO2-eq yr-1 when vegetation carbon uptake is considered on the previously agricultural land (Poore and Nemecek 2018, 2019)" 32 . This same study showed that a vegan diet had the highest mitigation potential of up to 14.7 GtCO2-eq yr-1 31, which would make our food system carbon negative for over a century 98. The United States could reduce their total emissions by 24% (1,634 Mt CO2e yr-1) by switching to a vegan diet; that's more than the electricity sector 39. According to a lead author of the data, Joseph Poore, "For a typical average consumer, diet change isn't just the single biggest way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, it's the single biggest way to reduce your land use, your impact on biodiversity, the nitrogen and phosphorous pollution caused by your food, the acid rain, the water use" … "Put simply, avoiding meat and dairy products are probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on the planet" 99. The IPCC itself says that diet change is not only one of "the most economically attractive and efficient options" we have 43, but "reduction of excess meat (and dairy) consumption is amongst the most effective measures to mitigate GHG emissions, with a high potential for environment, health, food security, biodiversity, and animal welfare co-benefits" 43.

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Isn't reducing fossil fuels enough to address climate change?

Even if we eliminate fossil fuel use entirely, it still won't be enough. Future projections show that the food sector alone will use up the entire emissions budget we have left. A shift toward more plant based diets will be critical to get the total emission reductions we need 4,18-23,25-27,36,77. Below are example quotes from several studies:

The IPCC states, "All pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with limited or no overshoot project the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR)" 77. In other words, we are so late in addressing climate change that reducing emissions alone is no longer enough; we must now also remove greenhouse gases that we already put up. The IPCC goes on to say, "Most least-cost mitigation pathways to limit peak or end-of-century warming to 1.5°C make use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), predominantly employing significant levels of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and/or afforestation and reforestation (AR)", however, "pursuing such large-scale changes in land use would pose significant food supply, environmental and governance challenges … particularly if synergies between land uses, the relevance of dietary changes for reducing land demand, and co-benefits with other sustainable development objectives are not fully recognized" 77 … "shifting diets, and reducing food waste could enhance efficiencies and reduce agricultural land needs, and are therefore critical for enabling supply-side measures such as reforestation, restoration." … "Animal protein requires more land than vegetable protein, so switching consumption from animal to vegetable proteins could reduce the pressure on land resources and potentially enable additional mitigation through expansion of natural ecosystems, storing carbon while supporting biodiversity, or reforestation to sequester carbon and enhance wood supply capacity for the production of biobased products substituting fossil fuels" 43. "These options can increase bioenergy potential, resulting in increased mitigation than from bioenergy and BECCS alone" 32.

In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is considered to be "the single largest investment in climate and energy in American history" 101 and is estimated to reduce annual emissions by 1 Gt 94. After full implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, the United States will still need to reduce their emissions another 1.7 Gt by 2030 94. Diet change can reduce US emissions by 1.63 Gt 31, giving us a more realistic chance at reaching our 2030 goal. Globally, diet change could reduce up to 14.7 Gt 31, which would make up the majority of the emissions gap 94. This could buy us more time and cut mitigation costs significantly 24.

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Isn't soy destroying the rainforest too?

Soy production does play a role in deforestation, however, 77% of soy is grown to feed livestock (e.g. chicken, pigs, fish, cows), 13% to soybean oil, 3% to industrial uses, and less than 7% is used to make food for human consumption such as edamame beans, tofu, soymilk, soy sauce, or tempeh. 102 Eating animals is the single largest driver of deforestation 1, habitat destruction 2, and species extinction 3 in the world.

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Isn't palm oil destroying the rainforest too?

Palm oil production does play role in deforestation, however, beef was responsible for over 4 times as much deforestation than palm oil.1,103 Eating animals is the single largest driver of deforestation 1, habitat destruction 2, and species extinction 3 in the world.

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Won't a plant-based diet require more crop land?

A plant-based diet uses less cropland 9,31,40,42 and can free up all pasture land. Most crops produced in the United States are directed to animal feed. 60 One report estimated a vegan diet in the United States requires 50% less cropland 98.

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Won't a plant-based diet require more GMOs?

"Most of the GMO crops grown in the United States are used for animal food" and "more than 95% of animals used for meat and dairy in the United States eat GMO crops." 104

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Won't a plant-based diet require more pesticides?

A plant-based diet requires fewer pesticides than an animal based diet 44. One study found beef required as much as 10 times more pesticide than kidney beans per unit of protein 48

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Won't a plant-based diet require more water?

Plant based diets require less water 6,8-11,31,33,34,41,43,44 and less blue water 31,44-47 than omnivore diets. One study showed that people in California who ate fewer animal products required 4 times less water than a diet higher in animal products 44. USDA researchers found that a healthy vegetarian diet required 8% less blue water than a healthy omnivore diet and 66% less water than the average American diet 46. Another study found a healthy vegetarian diet required 10% less water than a healthy omnivore diet and 16% less water than a healthy Mediterranean style diet 47. Cheese requires more water than nuts which are used in many plant-based cheeses. Cow's milk requires more water than plant-based milks like oat, rice, almond, and soy milks. Tofu requires over 5 times less water than eggs 31.

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Don't almonds require a lot of water?

Almond milk requires less water, land and emissions than cow's milk. Tree nuts, including almonds, require less water than cheese per calorie, so nut based vegan cheeses are likely to require less water as well compared to dairy cheese. Almonds themselves do require more water than some animal products. For example, per calorie, tree nuts may require 5 times as much water to produce than chicken. However, chicken requires 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions, causes over 6 times the amount of acid rain and nutrient pollution, and uses up twice as much land than almonds. Almond trees can temporarily sequester carbon if grown on cropland or pasture 31. One study on planetary boundaries measured which environmental limits are we most in danger of crossing. Water use was one of the limits studied, however the study concluded that climate change, land use, and water pollution were more immediate threats 105. One study showed that people in California who ate fewer animal products required 4 times less water, 5 times less fertilizer, and 18% less pesticide than a diet higher in animal products while still consuming twice the number of almonds per week 44. The majority of the world's almonds are grown in California where droughts have been an issue, however more of California's water is used to grow cattle feed (alfalfa) than to grow almonds 106.

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Don't rice fields create a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and use a lot of water?

Rice milk requires less greenhouse gas emissions, water, and land than cow's milk. Rice itself requires less water than all animal products except for chicken. Per calorie, rice may require twice the amount of water than chicken, but 4 times less greenhouse gas emissions, 8 times less land, 7 times less acid rain, and half the nutrient pollution 31. One study on planetary boundaries measured which environmental limits are we most in danger of crossing. Water use was one of the limits studied, however the study concluded that climate change, land use, and water pollution were all more immediate threats 105. Other starchy foods like corn and potatoes require less water than chicken.

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What about avocados?

Avocados require less greenhouse gas emissions than animal based products 37. Although avocados do require more water than many other fruits, it still uses less water than animal products 44,107.

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What about fish?

Both farmed and wild caught fish require more greenhouse gas emissions than plant based alternatives 30,31. Wild-caught fish contribute to fishery depletion, with over 30% percent of fisheries currently being harvested unsustainably and 58% being fully fished. Wild-caught fish cannot sustainably supply current demands (figure 19) 108. Farmed fish by the gram occupies similar amounts of land, emits a similar amount of GHGs, and results in a similar amount of acidification as poultry production, but uses a similar amount of water and results in a similar amount of eutrophication as red meat 6. Farmed fish require feed, just like livestock. Only "19% of protein and 10% of calories in feed for aquatic species are ultimately made available in the human food supply" 109. Shifts to pescatarian diets will increase the existing competition for land resources, particularly in low and medium income countries, with negative impacts on food security 90. Other facts about fish to consider:

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Isn't a plant-based diet more expensive?

A plant-based diet in the United States can be 34% cheaper at the grocery store 58 if one has the privilege to shop at a grocery store, which unfortunately is not the case for many. Some people do not have access to grocery stores nor the time to prepare meals at home in between work shifts. We need to acknowledge this and work toward increase access for everyone. Which is why it's even more important for those that do have privilege to adjust their diets as much as they can. The United States could also save an additional $248 billion by 2050 from avoided healthcare costs 7, $40 billion in avoided climate change damages 7, and $38 billion per year in avoided animal product farm subsidies 59. Another study found Americans are paying an extra hidden cost of $365 a month for externalities from their diet due to human health burdens and damage to ecosystems. 112 Oakland Unified School District saved $42,000 a year by increasing the amount of plant based food 113. University of North Texas was able to reduce costs and increase sales with their all vegan café, benefiting both the students and the campus 114. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Sixth Assessment Report, which represents the work of hundreds of leading experts in climate science, states that "Demand-side climate-mitigation measures, like energy-efficiency improvements, reduced meat consumption and reduced food waste, were considered to be the most economically attractive and efficient options in order to support low GHG emissions, food security and biodiversity objectives. " (Ch and "reduction of excess meat (and dairy) consumption is among the most effective measures to mitigate GHG emissions, with a high potential for environment, health, food security, biodiversity, and animal welfare co-benefits" (Ch 12.4.4). 43

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What about cell-based meat?

Cell-based meat is actual meat grown artificially from cells. Since cell-based meat has not yet been made widely available (as of 2023), existing research about its production is based on a few anticipatory life cycle assessments which assumed hypothetical inputs, production processes, and technological advances. For example, some LCAs assumed that the cell-based meat would be grown without fetal bovine serum 45. Although some news reports claim some companies are currently trying to work on it, further technological developments will be required to remove all animal-based inputs including fetal bovine serum (as of 2022). Assuming they do this, current predictions show that cell-based meats will have lower emissions than beef and pig meat but may not have lower emissions than other animal products like chicken 45,115. However, one report predicts that if greater than 30% of process energy is sourced from sustainable sources like wind and solar, the emissions impact should outperform all animal products 116. This is in line with the United States' current goal to achieve 100% pollution-free electricity by 2035 to meet climate change goals 117.

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What about plant-based meat?

Unlike tofu or bean burgers, plant-based meats are designed to mimic the taste and texture of meat; products like Beyond Meat, Gardein, No Evil, Impossible Foods, etc. A 2022 meta-analysis of 43 studies found plant-based animal product alternatives required less greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use and were healthier than the products they were designed to replace 118. A 2020 meta-analysis of 187 studies found that plant-based meat required less blue water, land, and emissions than all farmed animal products including farmed fish, despite high electricity use, but slightly more emissions than wild tuna and insects. Pulses (eg beans and lentils) required less emissions than all animal products including insects and wild tuna 45. Other factors to keep in mind when considering tuna or insects:



The IPCC states, "Emerging food technologies such as cellular fermentation, cultured meat, plant-based alternatives to animal-based food products, and controlled-environment agriculture, can bring substantial reductions in direct GHG emissions from food production (limited evidence, high agreement). These technologies have lower land, water, and nutrient footprints, and address concerns over animal welfare." 43

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How does cow's milk compare to plant-based alternatives?

Plant-based milks such as soy and oat milk use less greenhouse gas emissions, water 122 , and land per gallon compared to cow's milk. Soy milk also used less greenhouse gas emissions, water, and land per calorie and per gram of protein compared to cow's milk 31,123 .

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Not only did people who follow a plant-based diet show 73% lower odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19 severity 74, reducing consumption of animal protein can reduce risk from new pandemics in the future 75,76. This is because most infectious diseases in people come from animals 124 and increasing demand for animal products has increased the risk 125-127.

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Why can't we just change farming practices?

While some farming practices are better than others, the body of scientific evidence suggests that what you buy is more important than how it was produced. The largest meta-analysis to date on the topic looked at over 38,000 farms and found "the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change". For example, the least emission intensive beef herd farms found still emitted over 10 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as the worst bean farms found per gram of protein 31. Some might argue that averages give a better depiction of what is available to most consumers. On average, beef heard farms emit over 50 times as much greenhouse gases compared to pulses per gram of protein 128. The IPCC found, "mitigation actions need to go beyond food producers and suppliers to incorporate dietary changes" (Ch 12.4.1) 43. Another study found, "production-side mitigation strategies alone would not suffice to reach this [2 degree] target and that dietary change would also be needed" 23

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Can't I just buy local meat?

Transportation only makes up 4-6% of food's overall emissions impact 129-131 and just 1% for red meat 130. Processing, transport, packaging, and retail combined still contribute at most 8% of beef's emissions 31. Surprisingly, international transport make up only 3% of emissions from food 132 . The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency echos this, stating, "Despite the level of attention it receives, transportation from farm to retail (or food service) accounts for only approximately 6 percent of cradle-to-consumer food supply chain energy use" 133. Shifting one day a week from red meat to plant-based food achieves more emissions reduction that buying all locally sourced food 130.

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Can't I just buy organic?

Organic animal products cause more emissions and require more land than conventional animal products 30. While there are some benefits to organic farming of certain foods, a United Nations report found that "large-scale conversions to regenerative-agriculture practices such as organic are only feasible in conjunction with major dietary shifts towards less resource-intensive diets that are more plant-based" 94. One study found that transitioning to a fully organic food system without causing deforestation is only feasible without meat 40. Another study found reducing meat consumption was also more effective at preventing nitrogen losses than switching to organically produced diets 134.

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Can't I just buy grass fed beef?

Grass-fed beef causes more emissions 30,135, more water pollution, and requires more land 30 than conventional beef. Grazing also has negative impacts on soil carbon compared to no grazing 136. If scaled up and promoted, US grown grass fed beef may only meet 27% of current beef demand 137. This same study concluded, "only reductions in beef consumption can guarantee reductions in the environmental impact of US food systems" 137. Currently, most "grass fed" beef labeled "product of USA" is imported.

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What about holistic/regeneratively grazed beef?


"Better management of grass-fed livestock, while worthwhile in and of itself, does not offer a significant solution to climate change as only under very specific conditions can they help sequester carbon. This sequestering of carbon is even then small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions these grazing animals generate" - collaboration between the University of Oxford, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Wageningen University and Research (WUR) 138.

Emission reduction potential:

Not scalable / Uses more land

Grass-fed beef requires 25% more land than conventional 30 and if scaled up could only meet 27% of current beef demand 137. White Oak Pastures showed that their regenerative beef requires 2.5 times more land than conventional beef 146, implying it would meet even less demand. In contrast, switching from conventional beef to beans would free up 42% of cropland 145. Another study showed that changes in grazing management would only sequester carbon on 22% of grazing lands in North America 147. Holistic methods cannot supply enough animal protein to meet current demand, much less future demand without "catastrophic land use change and other environmental damage" 138.

Time limited

Carbon sequestration in soils reaches a saturation point where the soil can no longer absorb new carbon.148-150 after which emissions are worse than before. Time limits range from 30-70 years 138, with one recent study showing sequestration may have peaked at 13 years 146. As an example, 3 US studies reported a decrease in emissions from changes in grazing management (-15%151, -16%152, -66%146 ) but not counting sequestration would make these farms emit more (+30%151 , +37%152 , +44%146) than conventional beef. This implies that setting up this type of food system will create more emissions in the long run.

Environmental benefits would happen anyway with plant-based diets

Environmental benefits of better grazing practices would happen anyways with a transition to plant-based diets. For example, a recent meta-analysis looked at over a thousand soil carbon observations from 294 grazing studies. Their main suggestion was to decrease grazing intensity on most of the land 139. This would happen anyways with a transition to more plant-based diets. This is because plant-based diets require less land than current diets 9,31,40,42. One meta-analysis estimated a vegan diet in the United States requires 50% less cropland and 81% less total land 98. Shifting towards diets lower in animal products could not only reduce GHG emissions and pollution but also spare additional land and enable restoration of natural ecosystems while enhancing carbon sequestration 39. A 2018 meta-analysis looked at 38,700 farms and found our entire agriculture sector could be a net carbon sink due to carbon sequestration if we all adopted a vegan diet.31 Several field studies have shown that when ranchers stop grazing, carbon sequestration returns 153-156 and habitats are restored 157-159.

Only half of grazing lands were originally grassland. 32% of grazing lands used to be forests 28. A 2017 study concluded that "simply ending the land use is sufficient for forests to recover" 160. A 2022 study found that "old forests continue to sequester carbon and fix nitrogen" 161. So from just a carbon sequestration perspective, old growth forests should be protected, and transitioning to a diet that requires less land can reduce the pressure to deforest more land for food production. The only diets that could transition our food system to completely organic farming practices without deforestation were the vegetarian and vegan diets, with the vegan diet performing the best 40. An IPCC 2022 report found that shifting to more plant-based diets can reduce agricultural land needs and are therefore critical to reforestation and restoration (page TS-86) 43.

A note about Alan Savory

There was a lot of press around Alan Savory. He claimed holistic, regenerative grazing techniques was the answer to climate change. However,

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But I heard methane is short lived and cows don't add additional warming.

If you don't increase methane emissions, then methane should not add additional warming. However, there are several points to consider:

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But I heard grasslands store more carbon than forests

Dr. Frank Mitloehner at The Irish Farmers Association said, "grasslands can capture as much carbon as forests can.", referencing a study by Benjamin Houlton, PhD. UC Davis 168. However, Dr. Houlton was talking about trees being vulnerable to forest fires in a future with climate change if we don't address climate change. He said "in a stable climate, trees store more carbon than grasslands" 169 In the situation of a devastating fire, trees naturally have more carbon to burn than grasslands because they start out with more carbon to begin with. Forests can store more carbon both above and below ground. Even if you don't count the trees, there is still more carbon stored below ground in forests than there is in the entire grassland system (above and below). Since trees can store more carbon, the trick then is to have forests, and not to let them go up in flames 168. The USGS also found forests store many times more carbon above and below ground than grasslands (table 5.3) 170. Old growth forests and large old trees are critical organisms connecting ecosystems and human health and continue to sequester carbon 161. In 2022, The New York Times wrote an expose about Frank titled "He's an Outspoken Defender of Meat. Industry Funds His Research, Files Show" showing that he gets funded by the meat industry.

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But I heard cows use land and crops unsuitable for humans

One study factored in protein quality improvement of beef over cattle feed in the United States and found a net gain of 3 units of beef protein for every unit of human edible feed protein, however the gains were largely due to using distiller grain byproducts of corn ethanol production as a major feed component and claiming it as not human edible 173. Corn ethanol requires cropland that could grow human food just as easily. A recent study shows increased demand for corn ethanol led to increased food prices 174 proving that ethanal corn is in direct competition with food crops and should be counted as human edible for these reasons. Many of the most productive crops, such as maize (corn) and soybeans, are responsible for a high proportion of losses to the food system via livestock and biofuel production. Shifting the use of crops as animal feed and biofuels would have tremendous benefits to global food security and the environment. The US agricultural system alone could feed 1 billion additional people by shifting crop calories to direct human consumption 60. The United Nations estimated that if we keep eating meat, the world will need 70% more food by 2050 175. Globally, is we shifted the use of crops as animal feed and biofuels to crops meant for direct human consumption, we could we could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70% by (which could feed an additional 4 billion people) 60.

Some say there is value in producing ethanol, claiming there are climate benefits from using ethanol over gasoline, however recent studies show corn ethanol emits more greenhouse gases than the gasoline it's meant to replace 174,176, meaning we should count animal products fed on ethanol grains as having even higher emissions, not discount them.

Furthermore, they also counted wheat forage as inedible. Wheat forage is the same as edible wheat, just harvested sooner. A lot of the times the main reason why a wheat farmer would decide to either let cows graze the wheat fields as pasture, harvest it early as hay forage for cows, or to let it grow longer to form wheat grain for humans is a purely economic decision based on current commodity prices, not the suitability of the land 177,178.

When looking at a scenario that did not use wheat forage or distiller grains from ethanol, the protein quality gain of beef over feed disappears 173.

Even if you count the gains, beef is still several times more carbon intensive per gram of protein than plant based alternatives 43,128,145,179.

Of the land that is unsuitable, shouldn't we use that land to grow meat? What if we maximized production on all land, including unsuitable land to feed more people? There was a lot of news around a study that looked at the "carrying capacity" of different diets 180. Keep in mind, the scope of this study was only to estimate the maximum amount of land we could put into food production for each diet scenario, not what the environmental impacts would be of those diets. Even so, in the abstract of this study it says carrying capacity is highest for the vegetarian diet (no meat), meaning a diet without meat scored better than all other diets. Also, this study says the vegan diet still uses the least amount of total land (see fig 2) as well as the least amount of cropland (see figure 4) and can still feed 2.4 times the population (table 4) 180.

What many news headlines pointed out was that an omnivore diet was better for the environment than a vegan diet and referenced this study. A scenario where we eat some animal products (OMNI 40) could feed 2.6 times the population, where a vegan diet could feed 2.4 times the population, an 8% difference, which is what these news headlines were referring to. Keep in mind that the OMNI 40 diet still requires Americans to remove most of the meat from their diet, but the headlines failed to mention this. Furthermore, the vegan diet can provide more than enough food to feed the population into the future. One study projects US population will peak in 2062 at 1.2 times the population, far less than the 2.4 times the population a vegan diet could support 181. Globally population will only increase by as much as 1.4 times the population 182. Other studies have also shown that we can feed more people on a vegan diet than the current food system 42,60.

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What if we rear livestock on only grassland, crop residues, food waste, and other byproducts?

Although a noble effort, a 2017 meta-analysis shows using agricultural wastes and byproducts as animal feeds could only reduce the environmental impacts of livestock production by 20%. Plant based foods have 80-99% less emissions than animal based foods 30. Even if it were sustainable, it's still not scalable. A 2018 study showed that by using up all the grassland, crop wastes and food waste for livestock feed would only satisfy a maximum of 37% of current US supply of animal products 183, meaning we would have to remove the majority of animal products from our diet. Furthermore, at least one third of grassland could be used as cropland 172 and crop residues, food waste, and other byproducts can be used as compost for growing plant-based foods. Many farmers today already work crop residues back into their soil to help fertilize the next year's harvest.

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What about hunting?

One study done in Brazil showed wild bushmeat had 1kg CO2e less emissions than poultry per kg of food 184, or about 10% less emissions than poultry 128. As another comparison, beans have 80% less emissions than poultry 128. An easy chart to view these emissions can be found here if you wanted to quickly compare other foods as well: https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food Regarding scalability, there were no studies I could find on the scalability wild meat, but by using the grass-fed scalability study 137, and using extremely conservative assumptions such as we would use all the forestland including private and corporate timberland, and assume all forestland and hunting is just as productive as rangeland, and if we include cropland-raised forage and assume it would not compete with human food crop production, very rough back of the napkin calculations might suggest that hunting, if scaled up, might meet 83% of current US beef demand. That would put a theoretical "hunter" diet emissions impact somewhere between the "climate carnivore" diet and the "pescatarian" diet (IPCC Climate Change and Land, Figure 5.12) 185 .

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But I heard removing animals would only reduce emissions by 2 or 3%?

The Cattlemen's Beef Board on their website 186 points to a study that claims removing animals from US agriculture would only reduce total emissions by 2.6% 187. However, this study did not examine the emissions potential of dietary shifts. When asked, the authors said their study was "not intended to relate to studied vegetarian or vegan diets" 188. Several research groups have published responses voicing concerns about this paper calling the scenario "unrealistic". 189-191 For example, the study assumes when animals are removed, farmers will just keep growing animal feed without animals to eat it, implying famers wouldn't change what crops they grow. If we expect humans to eat all of this feed, everyone would have to double their calorie intake. Obviously, this is unrealistic. Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis, an outspoken defender of meat, echoed this study as a way to convince people to keep eating beef and to not worry so much about environmental impacts from beef. In 2022, The New York Times wrote an expose about him titled "He's an Outspoken Defender of Meat. Industry Funds His Research, Files Show" showing that he gets funded by the meat industry.

The website also claims that beef production "is responsible for only 3.3% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S." referring to a study that did not compare diets, discounted grains from corn ethanal production (recent studies show corn ethanol emits more greenhouse gases than the gasoline it's meant to replace 174,176, meaning we should count animal products fed on ethanol grains as having even higher emissions, not discount them), and didn't count carbon opportunity cost of land. Also, it was funded by the beef industry, and was initiated, co-authored, and data obtained and provided by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association 192 , an industry group whose job is to "promote beef's image and defend beef's freedom to operate to enhance consumer, influencer and stakeholder trust in beef" 193. The data was also not peer-reviewed. This presents a conflict of interest. Furthermore, the website's footnotes were either broken links, go to other beef industry websites, and/or were opinion blogs. By contrast, a different study that was co-authored by a vegan food company representative found that a global phaseout of animal agriculture could offset 68% of world CO2 emissions 194. Although this study was peer-reviewed, it too presents a potential conflict of interest. It is possible that some studies with conflicts of interest can still provide sound science, however because of these conflicts, neither of these studies are considered nor referenced anywhere else in this document.

BeefResearch.org, which is run by the Cattlemen's Beef Board and National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which are both funded by the beef checkoff program, says on their website titled "Would Removing Beef from the Diet Actually Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?" that, "According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), beef cattle production was responsible for 1.9% of total U.S. GHG emissions" 195 and refers to an EPA site 196. However, they didn't include beef from dairy cows, emissions from feed production, nor carbon opportunity cost of land. Also, the EPA site does not compare different diets and is not a life cycle assessment; nor was it meant to be.

Sometimes meat promoters will refer to an EPA chart showing agriculture is only 10% of emissions 197. Again, this 10% figure is not a comparison of different diets, not a life cycle assessment, and does not include carbon opportunity cost of land and land use change. There is even a statement right under the chart that reads, "excluding emissions and removals from the land use, land use change and forestry sector".

EPA has never done a life cycle analysis of different diets. Perhaps they should. Furthermore, multiple studies have suggested that EPA is underestimating methane emissions from animal agriculture 198,199.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates livestock is responsible for 14.5% of global emissions. Many people use this as the absolute maximum amount of emissions reduction diet change could help with. However, this report did not look at diet change. Although this estimate does include land use change, it does not include carbon opportunity cost of abandoned land from diet change. From the report, "Changes in soil and vegetation carbon stocks not involving land-use change can be significant but are not included" 200.

The reason why so many use this 14.5% number, is because the FAO is part of the United Nations, a trusted authority by many. But the FAO is not the United Nations main authority on climate change. For that, you must turn to the IPCC. The IPCC is also part of the United Nations, and their main purpose is to provide governments with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies. The IPCC did in fact look at solutions to climate change, including diet change. They found that diet change is not only one of "the most economically attractive and efficient" options 43, but "reduction of excess meat (and dairy) consumption is amongst the most effective measures to mitigate GHG emissions, with a high potential for environment, health, food security, biodiversity, and animal welfare co-benefits" 43. The IPCC talks about one scenario that only involves reducing animal product consumption by half 32 and it has the potential to reduce the majority of the emissions gap94 we need to fill beyond national commitments. Imagine if many of us went completely vegan. This scenario was taken from a huge meta-analysis out of Oxford that looked at 570 studies, over 38,000 farms, and the lead author of that study, Joseph Poore, said that a vegan diet is the single biggest thing an average consumer can do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to a total emission reduction of 24% for the United States and 28% 31,99 globally, not 14.5%.

So how can diet change reduce more emissions than the entire food sector? The IPCC explains this very simply, "When the transition to a low-meat diet reduces the agricultural area required, land is abandoned, and the re-growing vegetation can take up carbon" 32. So diet change doesn't just reduce emissions from the food sector, it also removes carbon from the atmosphere, making the emission reduction potential beyond 14.5%. The FAO didn't account for this land-sparing effect. And they didn't intend to. It just wasn't part of their scope. They were just looking at direct emission sources, not solutions. We know growing trees and restoring nature is good for the climate, and these studies like the Oxford study and others are just factoring in this effect, and justifiably so. We need to reduce fossil fuels, yes, and fast. But reducing emissions is just not enough anymore because we've delayed action for so long. The IPCC, which comes from the same authority as the FAO, says that we need to remove carbon as well if we are going to stay below 1.5 degrees 77 and that diet change will be critical for this to happen 43.

Furthermore, one study found "global-average GHG costs of dairy and beef are about 3-4 times higher than previous estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization" and that the emissions impact from a person's diet was equivalent to GHG's typically assigned to a person's overall consumption of all goods, including energy consumption 28. These researchers also put together a short paper that helps explain the study and the carbon opportunity cost concept in more simple terms 201.

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How much of our diet do we need to change to reach sustainability goals?

One study estimates that the Eat Lancet diet could reduce enough emissions to keep us below 1.5 degrees of warming 19. This diet, for the United States, involved a reduction of beef, lamb and pork by 84%, eggs by 63%, poultry by 57%, and dairy by 31% 4. However, this is assuming that everyone will adhere to the diet, we also eliminate fossil fuel use entirely, and it only gets us to a 50% chance at staying below 1.5 degrees of warming. Considering most nations can't even promise to reduce half the emissions we need 94, some might conclude changing our diets even more may be prudent. A completely vegan diet could get us to a 85% chance at staying below 1.5 degrees 98. Also, another study showed the only diets that could transition our food system to completely organic farming practices without deforestation were the vegetarian and vegan diets, with the vegan diet performing the best 40. Knowing what's at stake and how far we still need to go, some people may understandably want to go completely vegan and this behavior should be encouraged and supported. Just like we encourage people and businesses to reduce their fossil fuel use as far as is possible and practicable, they should also be encouraged to reduce their animal product consumption as far as is possible and practicable.

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Is being 100% plant-based healthy?

The world's largest organization of nutrition and dietetics practitioners, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that appropriately planned vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes 13. Other organizations also say a vegan diet can be healthy including the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee 12, the British Dietetic Association 202, and the Dietitians of Canada 203.

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If we change to more plant-based diets, won't we waste more food?

Although fresh fruit and vegetable waste would increase with a change to a vegan diet, animal product waste would decrease, resulting in an overall decrease of emissions from not just our diets but from our food waste as well 31.

The largest share of food waste today is fruits and vegetables, but the largest share of environmental burden of food waste comes from animal products. A 2021 US EPA report stated, "Animal products have an outsized contribution to the environmental footprint of U.S. FLW [Food Loss and Waste], representing the greatest use of resources (land, water, fertilizer, energy) and GHG emissions among categories of FLW, but a relatively small share of FLW" 133 .

In addition to direct food waste, when we grow food to feed livestock instead of feeding humans directly, we end up with less food for humans overall. This can also be considered a form of food waste. A 2018 metanalysis showed that "meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use ~83% of the world's farmland and contribute 56-58% of food's different emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories" 31. One study found that "the opportunity cost of animal based diets exceeds all food losses" and "Replacing all animal-based items in the US diet with plant-based alternatives will add enough food to feed, in full, 350 million additional people" 42 Another study found "More than half of crop production by mass in the United States is directed to animal feed" and that "US croplands feed 5.4 people per hectare but could feed 16.1 people per hectare" 60.

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What about fertilizer?

Plant-based diets require less fertilizer 9,44. The reliance on livestock and on manure as fertilizer can be seen as counterproductive for GHG mitigation: compared to mineral fertilizer, the use of manure has been shown to increase nitrous oxide emissions by about a third, which is enough on its own to offset any soil carbon sequestration 94.

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Diet change and the USDA dietary guidelines

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) was established jointly by the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the committee's own words, "the major findings regarding sustainable diets where that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet." 8 The USDA and HHS, however, chose not to take action on the findings because they claimed they were not the right agency to give recommendations based on environmental protection (Letter from Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture and Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services) 204. Regardless, USDA staff still put out a report as far back as 2012 on USDA's website stating that "Consuming fewer livestock products can reduce emissions" 5. Six months later, the same authors published a report with even bolder messaging: "Agricultural production and GHG mitigation goals cannot be reached simultaneously, even if optimistic technological advances are attained. However, healthier human diets would allow sufficient decreases in agricultural production to meet GHG mitigation goals." They recommend consumption of fewer livestock products. 36 The dietary guidelines does give guidance on both a healthy vegetarian and vegan eating pattern option (See appendix 5 of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines).

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Diet change and U.S. federal agencies

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Tips for universities/dining services

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Tips for grocery/convenience stores

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Tips for the home

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