Cutting meat and dairy intake is beneficial for health, the environment and climate

A new research report quantifies how much reducing meat and dairy in our diets would cut agricultural pollution of the air and water. It also considers the health benefits of lowered meat and dairy consumption.

Livestock production in the EU is the cause of around 80 per cent of the nitrogen losses from agriculture – losses that cause a number of environmental problems, including eutrophication of ecosystems from excess nutrient nitrogen, health damage from air pollution, and enhanced global warming. The high consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs in the current European diet leads to an intake of saturated fat and red meat that exceeds health recommendations.

Halving the current consumption of meat and dairy in the EU would not only have considerable direct health benefits through changes in food consumption patterns, but would also reduce agricultural nitrogen losses by more than 40 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 25–40 per cent.

These are some of the conclusions of the report “Nitrogen on the table”, which was presented at an event in the European Parliament in mid-January. The study was prepared by an international group of researchers engaged in the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.

According to the report, around 80 per cent of the total emissions of ammonia, nitrates and nitrous oxide from EU agriculture are related to livestock production, including the emissions from feed production (e.g. cereal and fodder crops). The study investigates the effects of a 25 to 50 per cent reduction in the intake of meat and dairy on human health and the European environment.

Reducing the consumption of meat and dairy would result in food consumption patterns that are better aligned with international dietary recommendations and lower the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases and colorectal cancer. However only the most radical change investigated – a 50 per cent reduction in all meat and dairy consumption – brings the average intake of saturated fats within a range recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). This scenario is also the only one in which the average intake of red meat is reduced to only slightly above the maximum recommended by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF).

Lower consumption of meat and dairy products, accompanied by a proportional reduction in livestock production in the EU, would reduce nitrogen losses and greenhouse gas emissions as well as the area of land use per EU citizen. In the case of a 50 per cent reduction in all meat and dairy, nitrogen losses would come down by around 40 per cent. In particular, ammonia emissions would be reduced, as these are highly related to livestock production, whereas both livestock and arable field-based activities contribute large amounts of nitrous oxide and nitrate emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture would be cut by 25–40 per cent. 

Reductions in meat and dairy production would also free up large areas of farmland for other purposes such as food export or bioenergy crops.

The authors conclude that reductions in reactive nitrogen emissions will have benefits not only within the EU but at continental and global scales, because both atmospheric ammonia and nitrates in water-bodies cross national frontiers and contribute to international pollution. The reduced emissions of the greenhouse gases methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are relevant both at EU level and globally.

It is noted that the EU Common Agricultural Policy could help to transform the current agricultural system into one that sustains healthier dietary choices and has lower environmental impacts. If livestock farmers were rewarded by retailers and consumers for higher environmental and animal welfare standards, the economic impact on the livestock sector could, to some extent, be mitigated.

Christer Ågren

The report “Nitrogen on the Table: The influence of food choices on nitrogen emissions and the European environment” is published by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Edinburgh, UK, as a special report of the European Nitrogen Assessment. Link:

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