Effects of the food transition on agriculture

Effects of the food transition on agriculture

A largely plant-based diet would require 40% less arable land and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as a study by the Öko-Institut shows.

pflanzliche Ernährung aus Gemüse, Obst und Nüssen
A plant-based diet can make a significant contribution to climate neutrality.

Food security is the most important task of agriculture. However, the sector is responsible for a large proportion of climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions, which are mainly due to livestock farming. This also leads to the loss of biodiversity through monocultures and fertilization practices. Experts have long called for a rethink on meat consumption. But what would be the impact on agriculture in Germany of cutting out schnitzel, steak and the like? Researchers at the Öko-Institut have investigated this in a study commissioned by Greenpeace.

Dietary change alters agricultural production

The study is based on the EAT Lancet Commission's "Planetary Health Diet" of 2019, which describes the principles for a sustainable and healthy diet for a growing world population by 2050. According to the study, Germany would have to reduce meat consumption by 75%, in exchange for people eating twice as much fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes as they do now. Such a fundamental change in the food system would greatly alter the demand for agricultural products, but also agricultural production, as the Öko-Institut study shows.

Using farmland differently

Due to the reduced demand, the livestock population would decrease drastically, but the demand for plant products would increase sharply. This in turn would affect the use of arable land. According to the study, a meat- and dairy-reduced diet would allow a total of 40% of today's agricultural land to be used for other purposes. Only 56% of the arable land used today and 45% of the grassland would be needed for food.

75% less greenhouse gases

The study identifies alternatives for the use of the land that would then become available. These could be used to grow plant-based food for export and thus feed another 70 million people. Forests, and thus new carbon sinks, could also be created, which, according to the study, would remove greenhouse gases amounting to around 20 million tons. By giving up meat as much as possible, agriculture would save around three quarters of the greenhouse gases that are harmful to the climate. "Carbon storage or exporting food - in our study we show two options for more climate protection in agriculture," says Kirsten Wiegmann, co-author of the study at the Öko-Institut. "Which path we take is a societal decision that must be made by policymakers."

Healthy food for the climate
Impact of the Planetary Health Diet on the
Agricultural sector: production, climate protection, agricultural land


Food transition on the political agenda

Contrary to the recommendations of the German Nutrition Society and the EAT Lancet Commission, however, too much animal-based food is currently still being consumed. "Only if we shift our diet primarily to plant-based products can we drastically reduce greenhouse gases from agriculture and achieve the goal of greenhouse gas neutrality for Germany," says Margarethe Scheffler, an expert on sustainable agriculture at the Öko-Institut. Policymakers should therefore also give the food transition a high priority on the agenda and make actions ambitious, the study says.