Environmental and land use consequences of replacing milk and beef with plant-based alternatives

Marcela Costa*, Sophie Sagat, Beate Zimmermann, Eckart Petig, Elisabeth Angenendt, RM Rees, David R. Chadwick, James M Gibbons, S Shrestha, Michael Williams, David Styles

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
21 Downloads (Pure)


The consumption of meat and dairy products raise enormous environmental concerns. Circa 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the livestock industry originate from beef, milk and pork production. Changing the production and consumption of meat and dairy products is considered to offer an important contribution to achieving the Paris Agreement climate targets (UNFCCC, 2015), and could reduce the import of soybean meal to Europe from countries where it is linked with deforestation. However, individual diet substitutions may have indirect and unintended environmental consequences across interlinked livestock systems – hence a wider assessment of impacts of consumption changes is required using consequential life cycle assessment (LCA). In this study, we investigated the environmental consequences of two independent yet interconnected diet choices in a German context: (i) replacing dairy milk with soy milk, and; (ii) replacing beef meatballs with pea protein balls. We related commodity demand to detailed agricultural rotations and land use changes via farm scale economic modelling coupled with consequential LCA. The substitution of beef meatballs with pea-derived protein balls can result in GHG savings of 2.4 kg CO 2e per 100 g serving, and up to 7.3 kg CO 2e per 100 g serving if spared land is afforested. Environmental problems related to nutrient leakage such as acidification and eutrophication are also mitigated. Meanwhile, unless accompanied by dramatic reductions in beef consumption, the substitution of cow milk with soy-based milk does not lead to significant GHG mitigation owing to the displacement of dairy-beef production to less efficient suckler-beef systems. Nonetheless, land sparing by cow milk substitution could support overall GHG mitigation if combined with afforestation. This study confirms that legumes can play an important role in diet transitions towards climate neutrality, especially via substitution of meat (as opposed to dairy) products.

Original languageEnglish
Article number138826
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Early online date21 Sept 2023
Publication statusPrint publication - 20 Oct 2023


  • legumes
  • life cycle assessment
  • Carbon
  • Plant based food
  • Legumes
  • Plant-based
  • Carbon opportunity cost
  • Life cycle analysis
  • Carbon footprint

Rural Policy Centre Themes

  • Environment and climate


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