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Sustainability prize for research into the effects of a plant-based diet

Paul Behrens and his team have won the Frontiers Planet Prize of half a million euros for their research into the effects of switching to a plant-based diet. This not only reduces our carbon footprint but also increases carbon capture.

The Frontiers Planet Prize is a new international prize that celebrates breakthroughs in sustainability science. Behrens will receive half a million Swiss francs (almost half a million euros). The prize is the initiative of the Frontiers Research Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation based in Lausanne, Switzerland. The organisation’s mission is to accelerate scientific solutions for a healthy life and a healthy planet.

An important and buoying recognition

Behrens (Institute of Environmental Sciences, Leiden (CML)) and his team receive the prize for their article Dietary change in high-income nations alone can lead to substantial double climate dividend. The area needed to grow feed and for animals to graze is huge. It takes up about 80% of all agricultural land or about 35% of the total habitable land in the world. The study shows that if high-income nations moved away from animal products, this percentage could be significantly reduced. Vast areas would then revert to their natural state, with wild plants and trees drawing carbon from the atmosphere. Read an article about the study.

The prize came as a surprise to Behrens. ‘It took a while to sink in. It’s an important and buoying recognition of the sort of work we do at the CML in energy, food, resources, well-being, climate change, biodiversity and so much more. It’s also wonderful to have recognition of multidisciplinary work that is often quite challenging to fund.’

The current food system alone is enough to blow climate targets.

Rapid food transitions

Behrens will use the prize money for research into rapid food transitions. Even if we make a full, timely shift to a decarbonised energy system, the current food system alone is enough to blow climate targets, he says. It is also the largest driver of biodiversity loss, deforestation, air pollution, soil degradation and much more.

But Behrens can see many opportunities in a food system transition. ‘It has to happen fast, both to reduce impacts and to adapt to the environmental damage from climate change on food production. The money will go towards towards establishing a rapid food transitions lab which will link PhD students already working on the topic with two further students. They will investigate questions such as how do we help accelerate changes? Can we rethink subsidies? What other impacts would a move to plant-based diets have?’

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: Unsplash

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