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Reducing Meat Intake Good for the Environment: Report

Update Date: Feb 19, 2013 08:22 AM EST

Cutting meat consumption by 50 percent can help get the nutrient cycles back on track, by reducing the number of steps that it takes to get the food on the table, says a new report. The report has been commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

In the past few decades, human intervention has increased the amount of nitrogen that is freely available. Although the atmosphere is 80 percent nitrogen, it doesn't exist in reactive form. Fertilizer production, car emissions, electricity generation, etc, have increased the conversion of nitrogen in the atmosphere into nitrous oxide and though the presence of some nitrous oxide is good for plants, too much of it can damage their growth.

"Just like the carbon cycle is disturbed, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles are also disturbed. Except these are disturbed even more. We've doubled the nitrogen going into the environment over the past 100 years," said professor Mark Sutton, from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and lead author of the report.

Sutton said that many steps in food production mean more opportunities to lose nutrients. Cutting down on meat shortens the food chain and makes the nutrient cycle more efficient.

However, you needn't go all the way and become a vegetarian to bring about a change in the environment, just choose to be a "demi-tarian".

"If you analyse the numbers it's quite amazing that of the nitrogen taken up by plants, 80 per cent of the amount harvested goes to feed livestock. Only 20 per cent feeds people directly, showing the massive inefficiency. It's not about being vegetarian or not, but about how much meat you eat. It's about being demi-tarian," Sutton said in a news release.

A related study from American Journal of Clinical Nutrition had earlier said that, on an average, non-vegetarian diets require "2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more primary energy, 13 times more fertilizer, and 1.4 times more pesticides than did the vegetarian diet." The study added that beef consumption is the highest contributor to these differences.

The current report further shows how countries like India have started adopting western food practices and how this trend has put even more pressure on the environment. 

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