The authors wrote: "This assessment suggests that removing animals from USA agriculture would reduce agricultural GHG emissions, but would also create a food supply incapable of supporting the United States population's nutritional requirements". So what would happen if all 320 million Americans went vegan, entirely eliminating animals from our diets - and from our farming and ranching practices? That's less than the 49 percent of gas emissions from farm animals release.
A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that such a radical diet change would slash USA greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 28 percent.
"This assessment suggests that removing animals from USA agriculture would reduce agricultural GHG emissions", they said, "but would also create a food supply incapable of supporting the US population's nutritional requirements".
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For better or worse, it's not that simple, scientists told Science Magazine.
The simulation also showed that a rise in plant agriculture would lead to more plant-based waste - such as corn stalks - that are fed to livestock.
Consider the hamburger. Producing this staple of the USA diet takes 25 kilograms of animal feed, 25 square meters of land, and about 220 liters of water-all for four patties.
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Livestock is generally seen as a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming but a new study suggests going vegan may not completely solve the problem. And if that uneaten waste got burned to eliminate it, the waste would churn out 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, the researchers told Science Magazine.
Looking at the nutritional content of crops now produced, the team also found that a plant-only system wouldn't be able to meet the US population's requirements for calcium, vitamins A and B12, and a few key fatty acids.
The scenarios showed total food production would increase by 23%, attributed to a wider availability of grains and legumes as land used for growing animal feed is re-purposed to grow crops for human food. "With carefully balanced rations, you can meet all of your nutrient requirements with a vegetarian diet", White says. "But the types of foods that seem to do that, we don't now produce in sufficient quantities to make it a sustainable diet for the entire population".
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That's not to say that eating a little (or a lot) less meat on an individual level can't have an impact on your carbon footprint, though - especially considering how much of our individual greenhouse emissions come from meat consumption. Yet it's fuel efficiency - not hamburger and chicken nugget bans - that policymakers hoping to tackle greenhouse emissions focus on.