Eating less meat might not be the way to go green, say researchers


Reduced meat consumption might not lower greenhouse gas emissions from one of the world's biggest beef producing regions, new research has found. The finding may seem incongruous, as intensive agriculture is responsible for such a large proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to research by University of Edinburgh, Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) and Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), reducing beef production in the Brazilian Cerrado could actually increase global greenhouse . The findings were published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Lead author Rafael Silva, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Mathematics, explains: "Much of Brazil's grassland is in poor condition, leading to low beef productivity and high from cattle. However, increasing demand for meat provides an incentive for farmers to recover degraded pastures. This would boost the amount of carbon stored in the soil and increase cattle productivity. It would require less land for grazing and reduce deforestation, potentially lowering emissions."

While grasslands are not as effective as forests at storing carbon, Brazilian grass - mostly Brachiaria genus - has a greater capacity to do so than grass found in Europe, due to its long roots. High quality grasslands will cause more carbon to be stored in the soil, which will lead to a decrease in CO2 emissions. Grassland improvement involves chemical and mechanical treatment of the soil, and use of better adapted seeds along with calcium, limestone and nitrogen fertilisers. Most Brazilian grassland soils are acidic, requiring little nitrogen.

In the case of the Brazilian Cerrado, reduced meat consumption could remove the incentive for grassland improvement and therefore lead to higher emissions. The researchers worked out that if demand for beef is 30% higher by 2030 compared with current estimates, net emissions would decrease by 10%. Reducing demand by 30% would lead to 9% higher emissions, provided the deforestation rates are not altered by a higher demand. However, if deforestation rates increase along with demand, emissions could increase by as much as 60%.

Prof Dominic Moran, of the SRUC says: "The message of our research is to beware of unintended consequences. In some production regions, shifting to less meat-dependent diets would help curb climate change, but it is important to understand the nature of different production systems before concluding that reduced consumption will have the same effects in all systems."

Explore further

Trade emerging as a key driver of Brazilian deforestation

More information: R. de Oliveira Silva et al. Increasing beef production could lower greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil if decoupled from deforestation, Nature Climate Change (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2916
Journal information: Nature Climate Change

Citation: Eating less meat might not be the way to go green, say researchers (2016, January 19) retrieved 25 June 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jan 19, 2016
This link didn't even mention methane production from beef production; a big contributor to global warming.
It also focuses on the effect on Brazil's grassland, which may be a special case, and yet the title of this link is "Eating less meat might not be the way to go green..." as if we can rationally extrapolate from just the Brazil's grassland to the whole globe.
So, this link implies that, completely contrary to the vast majority of other studies, eating more meet globally may reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Really?
What gives me the feeling here that this link is massively unscientifically politically biased against vegetarianism? Perhaps this lot are being paid by the meet industry?

Jan 19, 2016
Once again, humy, it could just be that the incompetent headline writer has struck again. This site, as they say, has "form".

"increasing demand for meat provides an incentive for farmers to recover degraded pastures."

without telling us why the pastures are degraded. Could it be because of over-farming of cattle?

Also this article is entirely about economic incentives. Well, if this is an important carbon sink then why wouldn't the Brazilian government encourage a reduction in cattle herds combined with incentives for recovering degraded pastures and reducing deforestation?

Frankly, this whole thing is why economists shouldn't be producing articles with scientific implications

Jan 21, 2016
This article says "if deforestation rates increase along with demand, emissions could increase by as much as 60%" Why would deforestation rates not increase? What incentivizes the cattle industry from restoring grassland instead of just cutting down more rainforest? Cattle ranching is responsible for most of the destruction to Brazil's beautiful rainforests.

Jan 21, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jan 24, 2016
Don't worry, Progs. Soylent Green will be available in 2 tasty flavors in a grocery market near you as soon as the holding pens for conservative Christians and ovens can be made operational.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more