Nutrition: Giving up beef can save forests

What we eat not only affects our health and well-being, it also affects our environment. “About a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are generated in the area of ​​’agriculture and food,'” explains Florian Humpenöder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) to science.ORF. at. “Meat and especially beef production play a very important role in this.”

In addition to the methane from the cows, the other exhaust gases, and the water consumption in agriculture, the deforestation required for the area is also a significant environmental burden. Meat production is considered one of the main reasons for the deforestation of the South American rainforest, along with soybeans. “You simply need a lot of space for pasture or arable land to provide enough food for the animals,” says Humpenöder.

Mushroom protein with meat texture

Therefore, the climate expert, together with his PIK colleagues, has set out to take a closer look at more environmentally friendly and meat-free alternatives for protein intake. Specifically, the team wanted to find out what environmental impact switching from beef to so-called microbial protein would have. The researchers are currently presenting their study in the journal “Nature.”

“Microbial protein is a meat substitute obtained from fungal cultures by fermentation. It has a very meat-like texture and is very suitable for human consumption,” explains Humpenöder. Another great advantage is that mushrooms take up little space during production and are relatively easy to grow. Microbial protein products are already on the market in Britain and Switzerland, among other places.

models up to 2050

According to Humpenöder, there are already studies on the environmental effects of microbial proteins, but these usually say little about the future and do not allow predictions to be made. It is different with the investigation of the German research team. Using complex computer simulation, the experts were able to create models with results up to the year 2050.

They included numerous factors from the field of agriculture and farming, but also aspects such as projected population growth, changes in eating habits and forecasts about the economic situation of people. Above all, the team wanted to know how global land use in agriculture might change as a result of the switch to meat substitutes.

Meat substitutes can cut deforestation in half

The result: “If 20 percent of global per capita consumption of beef is replaced by microbial protein, deforestation required for food production could be cut in half worldwide by 2050,” says climate expert . “Emissions from the entire farming and agricultural system could also be cut in half by 2050.”

To arrive at this result, the research team compared the 20 percent scenario with a model in which beef was not substituted for any meatless alternatives. In addition, the experts also created simulations assuming that 50 to 80 percent of global beef consumption would be replaced by microbial protein. They found other environmental benefits, but according to Humpenöder, the strongest positive change was in the top 20 percent.

One building block of many

Of particular interest to the climate expert: “We have seen very positive effects, even though we have only focused on beef consumption.” Comparable effects are likely to occur in many other areas of food production if more sustainable products are used.

According to Humpenöder, microbial protein is a good substitute for meat, but: “Protein from mushroom cultures should not be seen as the only solution to protect the climate and the environment. Rather, it is one of many building blocks that will be needed to achieve more sustainable nutrition and thus more sustainable land use. Replacing beef with microbial protein or other sustainable alternatives from time to time is definitely a good start to a more environmentally friendly life. diet.

According to the climate expert, lawmakers in particular are now being asked to take the study’s results seriously: “Products that are particularly bad for the environment could, for example, be taxed more heavily and more sustainable products could be more heavily subsidized.

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