Just a 20 percent replacement could cut deforestation rates by more than half by 2050

This section of Colombia's Amazon rainforest has been destroyed to make place for cows to graze. A recent study proposes that replacing some meat in our diet with microbial protein could help to minimize deforestation. GETTY IMAGES/RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP
This section of Colombia’s Amazon rainforest has been destroyed to make a place for cows to graze. A recent study proposes that replacing some meat in our diet with microbial protein could help to minimize deforestation.
GETTY IMAGES/RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP
“Fungi Fridays” has the potential to preserve a lot of trees while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers claim in Nature on May 5 that eating one-fifth less red meat and instead of eating microbial proteins generated from fungi or algae might cut yearly deforestation in half by 2050.
Cattle and other ruminants emit methane and nitrous oxide, whereas removing forests for pasture lands emits carbon dioxide (SN: 4/4/22; SN: 7/13/21). As a result, eco-friendly alternatives are being sought, such as lab-grown hamburgers and cricket farming (SN: 9/20/18; SN: 5/2/19).
Another option is microbial protein, which is generated from cells that have been cultured in a lab and fed glucose. For example, fermented fungal spores form mycoprotein, a dense, doughy substance, while fermented algae produce spirulina, a food supplement.
Although cellular foods require sugar from croplands, studies demonstrate that mycoprotein produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and consumes less land and water than cattle, according to Florian Humpenöder, a climate modeler at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. However, he points out that a complete assessment of foods’ future environmental implications must take into consideration changes in population, lifestyle, dietary patterns, and technology.
As a result, Humpenöder and colleagues used computer simulations of land use and deforestation from 2020 to 2050 to reflect expected socioeconomic changes. The researchers then ran four scenarios in which microbial protein replaced 0%, 20%, 50%, or 80% of the worldwide red meat diet by 2050.

Microbial diet scenarios

Over the next three decades, replacing some meat in our diet with protein generated from bacteria could reduce deforestation rates. If nothing is done (red line), over 8 million hectares of forest could be lost to pastureland each year. By 2050, replacing 20% (blue) of beef with microbial protein might decrease that loss in half. Even more substitutions (green, purple) could help to limit forest loss even more.
Microbial diet scenarios
Microbial diet scenarios

The researchers discovered that a small amount of microbial protein replacement lowered annual deforestation rates — and associated CO2 emissions — by 56% from 2020 to 2050.
Eating more microbial proteins, coupled with steps to safeguard forests and decarbonize electricity generation, could be part of a portfolio of methods to address the climate and biodiversity challenges, according to Humpenöder.
CITATIONS
F. Humpenöder et al. Projected environmental benefits of replacing beef with microbial protein. Nature. Vol. 605, May 5, 2022, p. 90. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04629-w.

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