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, 9 (1), 10345

Environmentally Optimal, Nutritionally Sound, Protein and Energy Conserving Plant Based Alternatives to U.S. Meat


Environmentally Optimal, Nutritionally Sound, Protein and Energy Conserving Plant Based Alternatives to U.S. Meat

Gidon Eshel et al. Sci Rep.

Erratum in


Because meat is more resource intensive than vegetal protein sources, replacing it with efficient plant alternatives is potentially desirable, provided these alternatives prove nutritionally sound. We show that protein conserving plant alternatives to meat that rigorously satisfy key nutritional constraints while minimizing cropland, nitrogen fertilizer (Nr) and water use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions exist, and could improve public health. We develop a new methodology for identifying nutritional constraints whose satisfaction by plant eaters is challenging, disproportionately shaping the optimal diets, singling out energy, mass, monounsaturated fatty acids, vitamins B3,12 and D, choline, zinc, and selenium. By replacing meat with the devised plant alternatives-dominated by soy, green pepper, squash, buckwheat, and asparagus-Americans can collectively eliminate pastureland use while saving 35-50% of their diet related needs for cropland, Nr, and GHG emission, but increase their diet related irrigation needs by 15%. While widely replacing meat with plants is logistically and culturally challenging, few competing options offer comparable multidimensional resource use reduction.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no competing interests.


Figure 1
Figure 1
Key nutritional (main) and environmental (insets be) consequences of replacing all meat (blue) and beef only (red) in the mean American diet (MAD) with protein conserving nutritionally sound plant based alternative diets. Panel a presents mean ± 1 standard deviation nutrient deliveries by the 500 MC plant replacement diets (bar lengths and whiskers) for all nutritional attributes whose two delivery differences from the respective replaced meat both exceed 25% of the corresponding delivery by the truncated mean American diet (tMAD, the nutrient delivery by all 73 plant and animal food items we consider, more formally defined in the Methods section). Alternating gray shading helps distinguish individual attributes. Insets (be) show use of land and reactive nitrogen (Nr), greenhouse gas emissions, and irrigation needs by the meat diets and their plant based replacement (with color convention shown by legend). The percent of total per capita dietary use of the resource (associated with the truncated MAD) to which values correspond are indicated numerically.
Figure 2
Figure 2
Absolute (ad) and relative (e) changes in national resource use associated with a hypothetical full population deployment of the considered all meat or beef only replacements (left and right bars of each metric respectively in ad). Since the shown values are savings, positive ones mean savings and negative ones mean increased usage (see arrows on left of a and right of d). Panel e shows the changes as percent of the annual national total and dietary (associated with producing the truncated MAD) using the shown colors. White tick marks are 5% apart. Replacing all meat with plant based alternatives, e.g., will save about 34% and 24% of the current national dietary and total land use (2 rightmost land bars in e).
Figure 3
Figure 3
Key resource using items in the plant based all meat (be) and beef (fi) replacement diets, ranked by mass contributions (horizontal axes). Nr ≡ reactive nitrogen fertilizer; GHG ≡ greenhouse gas emissions. Panel a: protein contributions of leading item to the right of the item legend identifier, with the upper (lower) bar corresponding to the all meat (beef only) replacements. Panels b-i: items’ mass and resource use contributions by the plant based replacement diets. Rectangles’ horizontal extents show items’ masses, with vertical extents showing corresponding resource uses. For example, contributing ≈29 g cap.−1 d−1, spinach is prominent (4th by mass) in the beef replacement diet. Yet because it is not a top land user, it is thus absent from panel f. Standard deviations calculated in both dimensions over the 500 Monte Carlo diets are given by the white L shape near the lower-left corners of sufficiently large rectangles. Total resource demands of the plant based replacement diets as percentage of the corresponding demands of the replaced meat(s) are at the top of each panel, e.g., the mean all meat replacement plant diet uses 30 ± 2% of the cropland beef, poultry and pork currently jointly use (panel b).
Figure 4
Figure 4
Analysis of the determinants of the beef replacement solution vector (the Supplementary Information offers the all meat counterpart to this plot). The plant items are arranged in descending order of mass prominence along the right horizontal axis (labeled “plant items arranged by mass in diet”), with the corresponding masses themselves shown along the left horizontal axis (labeled “mass in replacement diet, g d−1”). Individual food items are identified by the list of names on the z-axis that corresponds with descending order of mass (“plant items arranged by mass in diet”). The vertical bars show two attributes for each plant item. The bar heights show the combined nondimensional environmental cost (see Methods), with taller bars indicating higher resource use by the chosen mass of the item. To avoid parallax perception errors, white tickmarks show the rising environmental costs in increments of 0.05, and the full bars are projected in fainter colors on the back “wall” at mass = 30 g d−1. The bar colors, with a color scale shown on the right, show the relative compatibility of plant items with the critical constraints, with details in the subsection entitled Diet Composition, Nutrient Delivery, and share of Resource Use in the Results and Discussion section. The all-meat counterpart to this is given in the Supplementary Information file.

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