Extensive land uses to meet dietary preferences incur a ‘carbon opportunity cost’ given the potential for carbon sequestration through ecosystem restoration. Here we map the magnitude of this opportunity, finding that shifts in global food production to plant-based diets by 2050 could lead to sequestration of 332–547 GtCO2, equivalent to 99–163% of the CO2 emissions budget consistent with a 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 °C.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Geospatial data for land-use area and carbon opportunity costs are available via the NYU Faculty Data Archive Spatial Data Repository, accessible online at https://doi.org/10.17609/q5pe-7r68.
IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land (eds Shukla, P. R. et al.) (WMO and UNEP, 2019).
Erb, K. H. et al. Unexpectedly large impact of forest management and grazing on global vegetation biomass. Nature 553, 73–76 (2018).
Searchinger, T. D., Wirsenius, S., Beringer, T. & Dumas, P. Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change. Nature 564, 249–253 (2018).
West, P. C. et al. Trading carbon for food: global comparison of carbon stocks vs. crop yields on agricultural land. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 19645–19648 (2010).
Shepon, A., Eshel, G., Noor, E. & Milo, R. The opportunity cost of animal based diets exceeds all food losses. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1713820115 (2018).
Poore, J. & Nemecek, T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 992, 987–992 (2018).
Tilman, D. & Clark, M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515, 518–522 (2014).
Springmann, M. et al. Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts: a global modelling analysis with country-level detail. Lancet Planet. Health 2, e451–e461 (2018).
Herrero, M. et al. Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 452–461 (2016).
Batchelor, J. L., Ripple, W. J., Wilson, T. M. & Painter, L. E. Restoration of riparian areas following the removal of cattle in the northwestern great basin. Environ. Manage. 55, 930–942 (2014).
Sitters, J., Kimuyu, D. M., Young, T. P., Claeys, P. & Olde Venterink, H. Negative effects of cattle on soil carbon and nutrient pools reversed by megaherbivores. Nat. Sustain. 3, 360–366 (2020).
Alexandratos, N. & Bruinsma, J. World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision (FAO, 2012).
Willett, W. et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 6736, 3–49 (2019).
IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (WMO, 2018).
Fry, J. P., Mailloux, N. A., Love, D. C., Milli, M. C. & Cao, L. Feed conversion efficiency in aquaculture: do we measure it correctly? Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 024017 (2018).
Van Zanten, H. H. E. et al. Defining a land boundary for sustainable livestock consumption. Glob. Change Biol. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14321 (2018).
Griscom, B. W. et al. Natural climate solutions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 11645–11650 (2017).
Randerson, J. T. et al. Multicentury changes in ocean and land contributions to the climate–carbon feedback. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 29, 744–759 (2015).
Smith, P. et al. How much land-based greenhouse gas mitigation can be achieved without compromising food security and environmental goals? Glob. Change Biol. 19, 2285–2302 (2013).
Schmidinger, K. & Stehfest, E. Including CO2 implications of land occupation in LCAs-method and example for livestock products. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 17, 962–972 (2012).
Stehfest, E. et al. Climate benefits of changing diet. Clim. Change 95, 83–102 (2009).
Ramankutty, N., Evan, A. T., Monfreda, C. & Foley, J. A. Farming the planet: 1. Geographic distribution of global agricultural lands in the year 2000. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 22, GB1003 (2008).
Monfreda, C., Ramankutty, N. & Foley, J. A. Farming the planet: 2. Geographic distribution of crop areas, yields, physiological types, and net primary production in the year 2000. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 22, GB1022 (2008).
Cassidy, E. S., West, P. C., Gerber, J. S. & Foley, J. A. Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 034015 (2013).
Bouwman, A. F., Van der Hoek, K. W., Eickhout, B. & Soenario, I. Exploring changes in world ruminant production systems. Agric. Syst. 84, 121–153 (2005).
Hansen, M. C. et al. High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342, 850–853 (2013).
Herrero, M. et al. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 20888–20893 (2013).
Erb, K. H. et al. Biomass turnover time in terrestrial ecosystems halved by land use. Nat. Geosci. 9, 674–678 (2016).
Fetzel, T. et al. Quantification of uncertainties in global grazing systems assessment. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 31, 1089–1102 (2017).
We thank S. Davis, W. R. Moomaw, J. S. Gerber and L. L. Sloat for their helpful comments.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Hayek, M.N., Harwatt, H., Ripple, W.J. et al. The carbon opportunity cost of animal-sourced food production on land. Nat Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00603-4