A study published in the journal Nature Communications has examined the environmental impact of replacing animal-source foods (ASFs) with plant-based alternatives (PBAs) or whole plant foods (WFs).
Using Sweden as a model, the study found that diets rich in PBAs could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30–52%, land use by 20–45%, and freshwater use by 14–27%. The greatest benefits were seen with fully vegan diets. When ASFs were replaced with WFs instead of PBAs, the benefits were comparable.
The researchers note that a diet rich in PBAs meets most of the updated Nordic Nutrition Recommendations, which were published last year and recommend a mostly plant-based diet. Eating PBAs enhances iron, magnesium, folate, and fiber intake, while decreasing saturated fat consumption. However, three nutrients — vitamin B12, vitamin D, and selenium — could be lacking.
The study also calculates the cost differences between conventional diets high in ASFs and plant-forward diets. It finds that replacing ASFs with PBAs can slightly increase daily food expenditure by 3-5%, whereas diets based on WFs can decrease expenditure by 4-17%.
However, it is worth noting that the cost of PBAs continues to decline, with recent research finding that they are cheaper than ASFs at six out of seven Dutch supermarkets. With retailers Europe-wide joining a growing trend towards dropping the price of PBAs to reach parity with ASFs, it may not be long before choosing meat and dairy alternatives does not come at an extra cost.
The new study supports the results of a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report published last year, which found that meat alternatives have “strong potential” to reduce the environmental impact of animal foods. The report also emphasized the public health benefits of meat alternatives, which include lowering the risk of pandemics and antibiotic resistance.
Leading scientists have continually called for an urgent shift to plant-based diets to combat climate change along with environmental issues such as deforestation and air pollution. Last year, a study described as the most detailed yet concluded that a switch to plant-based diets could slash greenhouse gas emissions by 75%.
“New [animal-free] food alternatives will offer a broader spectrum of consumer choices,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Further, such alternatives can also lessen the pressures on agricultural lands and reduce emissions, thereby helping us address the triple planetary crisis — the crisis of climate change, the crisis of biodiversity and nature loss, the crisis of pollution and waste — as well as address the health and environmental consequences of the animal agriculture industry. More government support, as well as open and transparent research, can help unlock the potential of these new technologies for some countries.”