Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe's meat and dairy intake

Henk Westhoek, Jan Peter Lesschen, Trudy Rood, Susanne Wagner, Alessandra De Marco, Donal Murphy-Bokern, Adrian Leip, Hans van Grinsven, Mark A. Sutton, Oene Oenema

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Abstract

Western diets are characterised by a high intake of meat, dairy products and eggs, causing an intake of saturated fat and red meat in quantities that exceed dietary recommendations. The associated livestock production requires large areas of land and lead to high nitrogen and greenhouse gas emission levels. Although several studies have examined the potential impact of dietary changes on greenhouse gas emissions and land use, those on health, the agricultural system and other environmental aspects (such as nitrogen emissions) have only been studied to a limited extent. By using biophysical models and methods, we examined the large-scale consequences in the European Union of replacing 25-50% of animal-derived foods with plant-based foods on a dietary energy basis, assuming corresponding changes in production. We tested the effects of these alternative diets and found that halving the consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs in the European Union would achieve a 40% reduction in nitrogen emissions, 25-40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 23% per capita less use of cropland for food production. In addition, the dietary changes would also lower health risks. The European Union would become a net exporter of cereals, while the use of soymeal would be reduced by 75%. The nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) of the food system would increase from the current 18% to between 41% and 47%, depending on choices made regarding land use. As agriculture is the major source of nitrogen pollution, this is expected to result in a significant improvement in both air and water quality in the EU. The resulting 40% reduction in the intake of saturated fat would lead to a reduction in cardiovascular mortality. These diet-led changes in food production patterns would have a large economic impact on livestock farmers and associated supply-chain actors, such as the feed industry and meat-processing sector. © 2014 The Authors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196 - 205
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Volume26
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes

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All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law

Cite this

Westhoek, H., Lesschen, J. P., Rood, T., Wagner, S., De Marco, A., Murphy-Bokern, D., Leip, A., van Grinsven, H., Sutton, M. A., & Oenema, O. (2014). Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe's meat and dairy intake. Global Environmental Change, 26(1), 196 - 205. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.02.004