UN scientists advocate “demitarian” diet

Image of vegetables on wood

A UN report has calculated that if Europeans adopted a “demitarian diet” (i.e. halved their meat and dairy consumption), harmful greenhouse gas emissions from the continent’s agriculture would fall by between 25% and 40%.

The report, Nitrogen on the Table, written by scientists from the UN Economic Commission for Europe, explored the impacts that changes in consumer eating habits would have on agricultural nitrogen emissions – the majority of which are related to animal farming.

Professor Mark Sutton, one of the authors who came up with the term “demitarian”, commented that the report was not urging people to give up meat altogether. “When we’ve seen people urged to be vegetarians I’ve personally seen that that can lead to a backlash because many people want to eat meat”, he said. “From the environmental point of view, it’s not about whether you eat meat or dairy, it’s about how much.”

As well as reducing air and water pollution, a 50% reduction in Europe’s meat and dairy consumption would lead to a huge reduction in people’s intake of saturated fats, bringing the level to within World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and lowering the incidence of cardiovascular diseases within the European population.

The report highlighted that much of the land no longer required for rearing livestock could instead be used to grow cereal crops and biofuels. Lead author Henk Westhoek said: “The EU could become a major exporter of food products, instead of a major importer of, for example, soybeans.”

Professor Sutton noted that meat consumption is increasing in other parts of the world, including China which now produces a third of the world’s meat, and that a dietary shift in Europe could have a knock-on effect across the world. “If we were to change our culture, that would have a ripple, it would be an incredible sea change,” he said.

The Executive Summary of the report is available here. The full report will be published later this month.