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Eating less meat might not be the way to go green

Reduced meat consumption could remove incentive to improve grassland and lead to higher emissions.

New research has determined that reducing meat consumption may not lower greenhouse gas emissions from one of the world’s biggest beef-producing regions.

According to research by the University of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp., reducing beef production in Brazil's Cerrado region could actually increase global greenhouse gas emissions. The findings were published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

"Much of Brazil's grassland is in poor condition, leading to low beef productivity and high greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. However, increasing demand for meat provides an incentive for farmers to recover degraded pastures," lead author Rafael Silva of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Mathematics explained. "This would boost the amount of carbon stored in the soil and increase cattle productivity. It would require less land for grazing and reduce deforestation, potentially lowering emissions."

While grasslands are not as effective as forests at storing carbon, Brazilian grass — mostly Brachiaria genus — has a greater capacity to do so than grass found in Europe due to its long roots. High-quality grasslands will store more carbon in the soil, which will lead to a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions. Grassland improvement involves chemical and mechanical treatment of the soil and use of better-adapted seeds, along with calcium, limestone and nitrogen fertilizers. Most of Brazil's grassland soils are acidic, requiring little nitrogen.

In the case of the Cerrado, reduced meat consumption could remove the incentive for grassland improvement and, therefore, lead to increased emissions, the researchers said.

They determined that if demand for beef is 30% higher by 2030 compared with current estimates, net emissions would decrease by 10%. Reducing demand by 30% would lead to 9% higher emissions, provided that the deforestation rates are not altered by higher demand. However, if deforestation rates increase along with demand, emissions could increase by as much as 60%.

Professor Dominic Moran of SRUC's Land Economy, Environment & Society Group said, "The message of our research is to beware of unintended consequences. In some production regions, shifting to less-meat-dependent diets would help curb climate change, but it is important to understand the nature of different production systems before concluding that reduced consumption will have the same effects in all systems."

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