Plant-based diets have skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade, with vegetarianism and veganism becoming more mainstream across the world. That change could help save the planet. 

A new report this month by the Chatham House advocacy organization states that in order to maintain the health of current ecosystems, more people will have to shift to a plant-based diet or we risk severe habitat destruction around the world.

The global food system is the primary driver of habitat loss around the world, researchers write, coming as climate change and deforestation additionally threaten species.

Researchers claim that clearing land for pasture and crop production have been the leading cause for habitat and biodiversity loss, thanks to the growing demand to produce more food at the lowest cost. 

The report also specially notes that the current food system is also leading to increased contact with both wild and farm animals, which is exposing the public to zoonotic diseases — how scientists believe COVID-19 first spread to humans. 

“Our food system today is driving both environmental harm and deteriorations in public health,” researchers wrote. They ultimately argue that reforming the food system, especially the ways humans cultivate food, will heal biodiversity loss and help protect human health. 

Three methods were identified as crucial to overhauling how humans farm. First, dietary habits must shift to plant-based foods on a global scale. This will ultimately reduce the amount of land allocated toward animal farming, which occupies about 78 percent of land used for agricultural purposes across the globe.

In turn, the decrease in carbon emissions from cattle would reduce the total volume of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. Multiple ecosystems and habitats for flora and fauna would be preserved as well, helping increase global biomass.

Implementing policies and initiatives dedicated to preserving nature is another crucial component researchers say is needed. 

“Biodiversity is highest in areas of unconverted land,” the report reads. “From a purely theoretical perspective, and according to a growing body of academic literature, setting aside land for biodiversity to the exclusion of other uses, including farming, and either protecting or restoring natural habitat would offer the most benefit to biodiversity across a given landscape.”

To reduce extinction and habitat depletion, conservation is the most effective strategy, researchers also write. 

Finally, scientists note that some animal farming will still occur, but it must be done safely. This requires excluding chemicals like pesticides from crops and moving to smaller-scale animal farming.

This is key to helping reduce carbon emissions.

“Intensive, large-scale animal farming entails the raising of large herds on relatively small areas of land, creating volumes of manure that leak nutrients into soils and water courses at scales that become harmful,” researchers explain. “Ploughing disturbs the soil, liberating carbon into the atmosphere. It exposes soils to erosion by wind and water, damaging nearby water courses.”

Changes to how humans cultivate food will have to be done at the policy level, researchers say. The study concludes that the primary path to preserving biodiversity and improving human and planetary health is to forge international dialogues that translate to global action.

Specifically, they mention the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, set for Nov.1-12, as a platform to begin discussions on sustainable agriculture. 

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