evidence-based blog of Filippo Dibari

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

In Over-nutrition on September 16, 2014 at 12:23 pm

by 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.

From: Global Environmental Change. Volume 26, May 2014, Pages 196–205


• We model the effect of halving meat and dairy consumption on health and environment.

• Halving meat and dairy lowers saturated fat intake to the maximum recommended level.

• Lower livestock production lead to 40% lower nitrogen emissions.

• Lower livestock production lead to 25–40% lower greenhouse gas emissions.

• Lower meat and dairy consumption would make the EU an exporter of cereals.



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.

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