Researchers calculated what would happen if the entire US stopped eating meat. It'd be like taking 60 million cars off the road.

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2011 file photo, Simmental beef cattle feed on hay in a pasture near Middletown, Ill. Startups developing cell-cultured meat say their products would be more humane and environmentally friendly, since they don't require raising and slaughtering animals. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)In this Sept. 12, 2011 photo, Simmental beef cattle feed on hay in a pasture near Middletown, Illinois.Seth Perlman/Associated Press

Electing to not eat meat is a sure-fire way to reduce your impact on the environment.

The problem is that often, the diet that meets our nutritional needs isn't ideal for the planet.

"You could eat nothing but yellow corn - a crop that's grown in abundance, with reduced environmental impacts -but it would be catastrophic for your body to subsist on starch alone," environmental researcher Gidon Eshel told Business Insider.

But in a study published today in Scientific Reports, Eshel and his team report that it's possible to satisfy our nutritional needs without eating meat - and help the environment at the same time.

The researchers calculated that if every American replaced all beef, chicken, and pork in their diet with a vegetarian option, that would save the equivalent of 280 billion kilograms (280 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide every year. That's roughly the total that the entire state of Ohio emits. Or, put another way, it'd be the same as taking about 60 million cars off the road.

The benefits of going meatless

The livestock industry has an enormous carbon hoof-print. According to The Conversation, cow, sheep, and poultry farming accounts for 18% of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. That's a larger chunk of emissions than those from ships, planes, trucks, and cars put together.

Livestock farming also degrades land and water and contributes to deforestation - 30% of land worldwide is currently used either for livestock farming or to grow grain to feed that livestock.

angry bull pastureWikimedia Commons

So Eshel's team modeled what would happen if all Americans stopped eating meat (beef, poultry, and pork) and replaced it with plants that conferred the same nutrients in the same daily doses. Their results suggest that shift would reduce the amount of land needed to grow crops by 35% to 50% and eliminate the need for pastures.

By the numbers, replacing meat with plant alternatives would save approximately 29 million hectares (72 million acres) of crop land, 3 billion kilograms (6.6 billion pounds) of nitrogen fertilizer, and the equivalent of 280 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the US.

Food-related water use in this situation, however, would rise by 15%.

These benefits arise because crop farming requires less land and less fertilizer (and because crops don't emit methane, another potent greenhouse gas, the way cows do when they burp and fart).

Producing meat substitutes for a meatless diet emits about 80% less carbon than producing meat, Eshel said.

"The carbon-emissions cost is 3.5 kilograms per American per day for producing all the meat they need that day, and only about 0.6 kilograms for producing the meat's replacement," he added.

The plant-based diets that Eshel's team used in their model mostly consisted of soy, green peppers, squash, buckwheat, and asparagus. These crops were picked because they were at least as nutritious, if not more beneficial, than the meats they replaced in terms of their contributions to people's protein, vitamin, and fatty-acid needs.

Multicolor_soybeans_in_Hale_TownshipSoybean field in Hale Township, Hardin County, Ohio, located on the southern side of County Road 200 west of its intersection with Township Road 179. This field consists of multiple soybean varieties.Nyttend/Wikimedia Commons

The study authors reported that buckwheat and tofu, for example, could deliver one-third of the total protein in a meatless diet. Producing those foods would require only 12% of the nitrogen fertilizer and water and less than 22% of the cropland that would be needed to produce the meats they replaced.

"There's something empowering about these results, because they offer people a sense of agency in terms of determining their own impact," Eshel said.

The meatless meat industry

As planet-wide warming has accelerated (July was the hottest month on record, ever), some climate-conscious individuals have turned their thoughts to the meat industry.

burgerShutterstock

In 2019, meat substitutes (particularly patties that look, smell, and ooze juice like beef burgers) soared in popularity. The alternative-meat market is set to reach $6.3 billion in revenue by 2023.

Read More: Most of the meat we eat won't come from animals by the year 2040, according to a report

Impossible Foods, a leading producer of plant-based "meat-like" patties, has launched its Impossible Burger 2.0 in more than 7,000 restaurants worldwide. The product will be sold in all Burger King locations across the US (not to mention your local grocery store) by September.

Beyond Meat, another meat-free burger company, saw similar success: The company netted $40.2 million during its first quarter as a public company (between January and April), a 215% jump from the same period in 2018.

Global consultancy firm AT Kearney projects that by 2040, 60% of the "meat" products humans consume will either be plant-based replacements or lab-grown meats.

Eshel said studies like his are important in "reassuring the open-minded skeptics" that switching from meat- to meatless-diets won't leave you lacking in nutrition.

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