Study: To save planet, humans must alter diet and farming methods

"We must make serious choices, before agricultural activities cause substantial, and potentially irreversible, environmental damage," said researcher David Tilman.

By Brooks Hays

June 16 (UPI) -- Earth won't be able to support growing human populations without significant changes in human diets and farming efficiency. That's the conclusion of a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota.

Scientists suggest shifts in food production systems -- a move from conventional to organic agriculture -- won't be enough to stave off environmental degradation.


Researchers looked at the environmental effects of different combinations of food production systems, crops and input efficiencies, like feed and fertilizers. Environmental effects included land and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and eutrophication, the enrichment of water by nutrient runoff.

"Although high agricultural efficiency consistently correlated with lower environmental impacts, the detailed picture we found was extremely mixed," researcher Michael Clark said in a news release. "While organic systems used less energy, they had higher land use, did not offer benefits in GHGs, and tended to have higher eutrophication and acidification potential per unit of food produced. Grass-fed beef, meanwhile, tended to require more land and emit more GHGs than grain-fed beef."

The analysis, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, suggests farmers must marry the benefits of different food production systems -- not swap one for another -- and seek efficiency boosts across the board.


The results also shows a reduction in meat consumption would greatly benefit the environment and the quest for sustainable agricultural production.

"Interestingly, we also found that a shift away from ruminant meats like beef -- which have impacts three to 10 times greater than other animal-based foods -- towards nutritionally similar foods like pork, poultry or fish would have significant benefits, both for the environment and for human health," Clark said. "Larger dietary shifts, such as global adoption of low-meat or vegetarian diets, would offer even larger benefits to environmental sustainability and human health."'

If changes to diets and farming methods aren't made, researchers warn, increases in fertilizer and pesticides, greenhouse gas emissions and land clearing will be necessary to feed the planet's growing populations.

Scientists say public policies and education are needed to encourage the necessary changes.

"The steps we have outlined, if adopted individually, offer large environmental benefits. Simultaneous adoption of these and other solutions, however, could prevent any increase in agriculture's environmental impacts," said researcher David Tilman. "We must make serious choices, before agricultural activities cause substantial, and potentially irreversible, environmental damage."

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