A 50% reduction in meat and dairy consumption, and production, would reduce current European agricultural reactive nitrogen emission by around 40%, but would have a massive impact on the rural economy, according to a new UN report.

Scientists from the UN Economic Commission for Europe say that, adopting a “demitarian diet” – cutting meat and dairy consumption in half – the ammonia emissions are 43% lower, nitrous oxide emissions are 30% lower and nitrate emissions are reduced by 36%. The emissions are reduced most in alternative diets involving decreased beef and dairy production.

The researchers found that livestock production chains have a high share in nitrogen losses. Around 79-88% of the total emissions related to EU agriculture of ammonia, nitrate and of nitrous oxide are related to livestock production. In these values for livestock production the emissions related to feed production (as cereals and fodder crops) are included.

The report also highlighted that a reduction in meat and dairy consumption would be beneficial to peoples diet. It says the scenarios leads to food consumption patterns that are better aligned with international dietary recommendations. All of the reduction scenarios lead to a reduced intake of saturated fats, the main source of which is animal products.

Even though the reductions are significant, only the most radical scenario – representing a 50% reduction in all meat and dairy consumption, brings the average intake of saturated fats within a range recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). This scenario represents a 40% reduction in the intake of fats.

The report’s findings also stated that this alternative diet would lead to major changes in EU agriculture, with the expectation of large socio-economic consequences.

Livestock production is currently responsible for 60% of the value-added on EU farms, and this revenue would be greatly reduced under the alternative diets. By contrast, the scenario with increased cereal exports assumes a large increase in cereal production and associated revenue.

The net farm-level economic effect would depend on world market conditions and especially whether the additional cereal can be sold at a price that is profitable for European farmers.

The report did state that the effects on the livestock sector will most likely be severe, especially if consumer preferences change rapidly.

Using previously-completed UK research, the report showed that the reduction in the UK farm gate value of livestock from dietary change is not compensated by an increase in the value of crops for direct human consumption. Their study highlighted strong regional effects with gains in areas with high quality arable land and losses of income on less suitable land.