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‘Opportunity for negative emissions': Research reveals environmental benefits of global plant-based diet

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Phasing out of animal agricultural practices would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reverse the current decline of global biodiversity.

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SEPTEMBER 26, 2022

A campus research study found that a global shift to a plant-based diet would cause a 30-year pause in net greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

This drastic halt in the production of gasses that contribute to global warming would result from the absence of animal agriculture, according to Michael Eisen, study co-author and UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology.

“This put in really stark contrast for me just how big the opportunity for negative emissions is by dietary change,” Eisen said.

The three main greenhouse gasses that are produced through animal agriculture are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, according to Eisen. Without animal farming, one-third of methane emissions and two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions would be removed from the atmosphere while 800 gigatons of carbon dioxide would be stored in biomass.

With the concept of this global shift to veganism in mind, questions arose surrounding the impact this diet could have on an individual’s health.

There is abundant published scientific research showing that a vegan diet performs as well or better than a conventional omnivorous diet in supporting health and longevity for men, women, children, infants, athletes — essentially every stage of life and occupation,said Patrick Brown, study co-author, former Stanford biochemistry professor and founder of Impossible Foods, in an email.

The primary caveat in the transition to worldwide veganism is the need for education on nutritious plant-based foods and new farming practices, Brown noted.

Not only would the phasing out of animal agricultural practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it would reverse the current “collapse” of global biodiversity, according to Brown.

“Average global mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish and probably flying insect populations, across thousands of species that have been tracked for decades, are less than a third of their numbers 50 years ago – overwhelmingly due to habitat destruction and degradation by the animal-products industry,” Brown said in the email.

Animal agriculture — specifically of ruminants including cows, sheep and goats currently takes up one-third of Earth’s land surface, according to Brown. This footprint, due to grazing and feed crops, is what makes farming of animals “destructive,” he added.

The next phase of this research, according to Eisen, is centered around what happens once the one-third of land currently being used for animal agriculture is no longer needed.

“The big question really in my mind is not so much how we change our diet but our expectations for what will happen to the land after it is no longer being used to raise animals,” Eisen said. “For me the next step is getting involved in trying to figure out what is the best way to restore biomass on land that’s currently used for other purposes.”

Contact Zoe Kessler at 

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SEPTEMBER 28, 2022