When proteins help economy, environment, health: an analysis of their environmental footprints

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Currently, a large portion of crop and food production is funneled into animal feed (in particular of animals from Intensive Animal Farming Systems) or biofuels despite widespread hunger and undernutrition.
Plant-source proteins demand less natural (land and water) resources, release less greenhouse gases, help the natural regeneration of the soil and, from a medical point of view, appear to be healthier: those are the remarkable results of a study recently published on Land Use Policy (among the authors, CMCC researchers Arianna Di Paola and Monia Santini of IAFES Division) where researchers estimated the area, water and carbon footprints of animal-source proteins obtained from intensive farming systems and compared them with those from producing an equivalent amount of plant-source proteins.

As highlighted in the study, animal-source proteins from intensive farming are approximately 2.4 to 33 more expensive in terms of area and water demand and 2.4 to 240 more pollutant in terms of greenhouse gas emissions when compared with plant-source proteins.
Moreover, researchers postulated a set of hypotheses to recover environmental resources by cutting down a surplus in the per capita protein intake (either completely or partially, by reducing animal proteins from Intensive Animal Farming Systems) from three representative regions (North America; Western Europe and Eastern Asia) where intensive animal farming systems account for a great share of animal food production.
Environmental recoveries varied widely according to the hypothesized scenarios, but even the lowest estimates suggested remarkable results.
Whether additional proteins supply would be required, crops with large protein content as peas, chickpeas, soybeans, and lupins could help to meet food security, while better compromise between dietary habits and environmental protection could be reached in rich countries by a moderate consumption of meat produced with non-feed grain systems.

While the transition of our energy/production systems may require enormous investments and take a long time, people, in turn, can start changing their food choices today and with little investment.
In the light of these results and the current know-how, the authors hope their study will contribute to increase the awareness and interest in strategies to reduce feed grains livestock production while supporting the benefit of a moderate yet sustainable animal food demand, and increase food security and nutritionally adequate intakes in poor countries.

Read the integral version of the paper:

Di Paola A., Rulli M.C., Santini M.
Human food vs. animal feed debate. A thorough analysis of environmental footprints
2017, Land Use Policy, Volume 67, pp 652-659, DOI: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2017.06.017

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