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'A Vegan Diet Is Probably the Single Biggest Way to Reduce Your Impact on Planet Earth'

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The dairy industry separates babies from their mothers every day. This Jersey calf was rescued and brought to a sanctuary. Mark Peters Photography / CC BY-SA 2.0

If you want to do something as an individual to fight climate change, promote biodiversity and protect the environment overall, the best thing you can do is go vegan, the scientists behind the most in-depth study to date of the ecological footprint of agriculture told the Guardian Thursday.


"A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use," study leader and University of Oxford professor Joseph Poore told the Guardian. "It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car," he said.

The study, published in Science Friday, set out to assess the environmental impact of different farming practices and agricultural products. Researchers studied 38,700 farms in 119 countries and 1600 processors, packaging types and retailers and considered the impact of 40 foods they produced and processed—accounting for 90 percent of all foods consumed worldwide—on five environmental indicators: land use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification.) They found that even the least impactful meat and dairy products, including grass-fed beef, hurt the environment more than the most intrusive vegetables and grains.

"Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy," Poore told the Guardian.

Meat and dairy only provide humans with 18 percent of their calories and 37 percent of their protein, but farming them takes up 83 percent of agricultural land and produces 60 percent of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions. Eliminating meat and dairy farms would also be a huge boon to wild animals, since the percentage of the planet used for agriculture could then be reduced by more than 75 percent and still feed the planet. An area the size of China, the U.S., the EU and Australia combined would be free for wildlife to reclaim.

Even farm-raised fish have more of an impact on the environment than previously believed, the study found, since fish excrement and uneaten food that gathers at the bottom of fish ponds produces significant amounts of methane.

Researchers not involved with the study praised the breadth of the data it used and the resulting accuracy of its conclusions.

"This is an immensely useful study. It brings together a huge amount of data and that makes its conclusions much more robust. The way we produce food, consume and waste food is unsustainable from a planetary perspective. Given the global obesity crisis, changing diets—eating less livestock produce and more vegetables and fruit—has the potential to make both us and the planet healthier," University of Leeds professor Tim Benton told the Guardian.

Poore said he hoped that farmers could use agricultural subsidies to lower the impact of their practices. He also recommended taxes for high-impact products like meat and dairy, along with subsidies for more sustainable products and labeling on packages alerting shoppers to the environmental impact of their food choices.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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