Replacing some beef consumption with meat alternatives could halve global CO2 emissions by 2050

When modeling the benefits of replacing beef consumption with fermented plant protein, a study found that just replacing 20% of global meat consumption with microbial protein alternatives could offset CO2 emissions and deforestation by more than half by 2050. The study’s findings were published in Nature last month. Population growth and dietary shifts toward animal-based products from middle-income countries are projected to increase livestock production in the coming decades.

Livestock production accounts for about 80 percent of land use when considering pastureland for grazing and cropland for animal feed and ruminant animal production has doubled since 1961. The study’s researchers analyzed the environmental benefits of partially substituting ruminant meat with sugar-based microbial proteins in forward-looking scenarios between 2020 and 2050 using a global land use model called MAgPIE with a middle-of-the-road scenario for future food population, income, and food demand. 

When comparing the benefits of scenarios reducing 20, 50, and 80% in ruminant meat consumption and substituting for microbial proteins by 2050, the reduced demand for animal feed in the 20% scenario was enough to offset future increases of global pasture areas, with 56% less deforestation and net CO2 emissions from land use change by 2050. In the 50 and 80% scenarios, deforestation and CO2 emissions is further reduced in the 80 to 90% range by 2050. Land use change and CO2 emissions depend on the physical changes made in agricultural production as opposed to the level of production. Methane emissions are also reduced by 11, 26, and 39% per capita substitution of beef at 20, 50, and 80% levels by 2050. Fermentation decouples the production of microbial protein from biological farming impacts from meat production, however, cropland is still needed for growing sugar crops to produce the fermented proteins.

Another meat alternative is mycoprotein, a fungi-based alternative with meat-like texture and high protein content. The protein quality of mycoprotein is equivalent to ruminant meat and is already available in grocery stores. Life cycle assessment studies suggest approximately 80% lower GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and 90% less water and land use for each unit of ruminant meat substituted with mycoprotein. The researchers highlight the benefits of non-linear models to better assess the impacts of substitutes on land use change and net CO2 emissions in a dynamic world with different population dynamics, diet patterns, and environmental pressures. 

One area that needs further examination is a life cycle assessment of cultured or “lab” meat, milk, and eggs in place of ruminant meat consumption, while land impacts may be less from cultured animal proteins, energy costs could be higher and undermine the greenhouse gas emission benefits. The researchers also point out that one caveat of the study is that while it examined environmental indicators such as, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use change, agricultural water use, and nitrogen losses, the study did not account for the environmental consequences of sugar-based microbial protein production beyond land-use. 

The Organic Center has a report on the benefits of choosing organic meat, which in contrast, has certain regulations that require the provision of pasture to livestock for at least 120 days, and the storage of carbon in the soil from recycling of manure into pasture lands can help offset some emissions from livestock production.  If the above study examined the differences in organic ruminant livestock production versus non-organic in the various scenarios of 20, 50, and 80% reduced beef consumption, the life cycle assessments may have come to a different result for the overall greenhouse gas emission impacts. 

To learn more about the benefits of organic meat, click here to access the following report:  

For meat alternatives, check out these recipes from The Organic Center: or