Thought for Food Blog

Eating less meat can lower environmental impact

Eating less meat can lower environmental impact

Researchers at the University of Oxford in the UK have found a positive relationship between reducing meat consumption and decreasing consumers’ environmental impact. 

On 20th July 2023, scientists from the University of Oxford published their study on the link between meat consumption and climate change in the Nature Food Journal.

Researchers from the leading British university explored the environmental impact of diets adopted by vegans, vegetarians, fish-eating, and meat-eating consumers. The University of Oxford’s scientists analysed data from over 55,000 people from a review of 570 life-cycle assessments spanning over 38,000 farms in 119 countries.

Animal-based consumption is bad news for the environment

Results show that reducing the consumption of animal-based foods can help lower the environmental impact of consumers’ diets. For example, compared to high meat-eaters, the study’s scientists found vegans had around 25% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and land use, 46% of the water use, 27% of eutrophication and 34% of the impact on biodiversity, indicating the positive effects a plant-based diet can have on the environment.

The University of Oxford scientists relayed the existence of almost a third (30%) in differences between low and high meat-eaters for most of the indicators assessed: GHG emissions, land use, water use, eutrophication and biodiversity impact.

The findings allow for food sourcing and production variations observed in life cycle assessment reviews. Yet, the scientists stated that despite these, the connection between animal product consumption and environmental impact was clear and should lead to a decrease in meat eating’s eco-effect.

Meat consumption matters 

By 2035, the UK has committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 78% compared to its 1990 levels, enshrining a new law to support its pledge. The UK also launched The Environment Bill 2020, outlining its efforts to stop biodiversity loss by 2030.

In its 2021 Progress Report to Parliament, The UK Committee on Climate Change has stated that if the government is to achieve its ambitious targets for lowering carbon emissions, it needs to embark on rapid progress across all sectors, including introducing measures to promote dietary changes to encourage consumers to modify their consumption habits.

Specific targets and actions relating to the amount of meat consumers eat also prevail. The 2021 National Food Strategy called for a 30% reduction in meat consumption. In addition, scenario modelling has found that global improvements in food technology, closure of yield gaps, and food waste reductions offer the potential to lower dietary GHG emissions by approximately 15%. The study’s scientists found, along with other research, that globally we can achieve more significant reductions by increasing plant-based diet uptake.

Previous researchers have expressed the importance of implementing dietary changes if, globally, our food systems are to successfully feed a growing population while keeping within safe parameters for environmental use and protection, such as GHG emissions, land use, water use, water pollution and biodiversity loss.

Unless consumers around the globe make major dietary shifts, other efforts to lower the food system’s environmental impact, such as technological advances, closing yield gaps and reducing food waste, will be an insufficient solution.

Eating animal products and environmental impact 

Announcing their latest insights on plant-based diets, the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) highlighted University of Oxford’s recent study exploring meat consumption and the environmental impact. “This study reconfirms the link between eating animal products and the environmental impact of the diet,” Dr Nina McGrath, content production lead at European Food Information Council (EUFIC), told IFIS Publishing.

Continuing what drew the EUFIC to this study and its importance to the food industry, McGrath says, “What makes this study interesting is that the researchers linked data from dietary surveys of real-life eating habits with large datasets of environmental impact indicators of different foods”.

By connecting dietary survey data with large datasets of environmental impact indicators, the researchers could estimate the ecological impact of the different diet patterns explored–vegan, vegetarian, fish-eaters, and meat-eaters–and break it down into several contributing factors. Subsequently, the scientists split these factors into individual GHG emissions, water and land use, water pollution and biodiversity impact.

The study is linked to the EUFIC’s insights on plant-based trends and insights as it is “very in line with what we already know”, McGrath says, “which is that eating fewer animal-derived foods is a key step towards reducing the environmental impact of our diets”.

Vegan cooking-1-1

Securing future food production

The EUFIC details what it foresees as the main takeaways that the food industry and consumers can learn from the study. “Consumers may find the results of this study useful because it suggests that you don’t have to stop eating all animal products in order to reduce the environmental impact of your food choices,” says McGrath.

“While vegan diets do have the lowest impact on the environment, this study shows that low-meat diets or vegetarian diets already have a significantly lower impact than high-meat diets,” McGrath adds. As a result, cutting down on animal products might be more achievable than eliminating them for consumers who want to make a dietary change.

An evolving trend

Plant-based launches have been a mainstay in new product development (NPD) in recent years. With research exploring dietary habits and their growing environmental effects, the food and beverage (F&B) industry can turn to the potential opportunities and trends the movement may show signs of shifting towards.

“As plant-based eating becomes more popular, food technology is allowing us to produce innovative foods to compete with meat and dairy, for example, plant-based dairy analogues, lab-grown meat, mycoprotein and microalgae,” says McGrath. “It’s also a great opportunity for people to up their consumption of some of the more traditional plant foods that are both nutritious and environment friendly such as beans, pulses, seeds and nuts,” McGrath adds.

The study’s researchers conclude a strong relationship between the amount of animal-based foods consumers eat as part of their diet and the environmental impact these dietary components have, including their GHG emissions, land use, water use, eutrophication and biodiversity.

Dietary changes that move away from animal-based food items can significantly reduce the UK’s environmental footprint. Current issues within the F&B industry, such as a lack of clarity on food products’ origins and growth regions and food production methods, do not shift the variations observed between diet groups. As such, the scientists state that these industry uncertainties should not be reasons for limited policy actions that strive to reduce animal-based food consumption among consumers.

Editorial notes 


  • Interview with Dr Nina McGrath, Content Production Lead at European Food Information Council (EUFIC)

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