The opportunity cost of animal based diets exceeds all food losses

Alon Shepon, Gidon Eshel, Elad Noor, Ron Milo*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Scopus citations


Food loss is widely recognized as undermining food security and environmental sustainability. However, consumption of resource-intensive food items instead of more efficient, equally nutritious alternatives can also be considered as an effective food loss. Here we define and quantify these opportunity food losses as the food loss associated with consuming resource-intensive animal-based items instead of plant-based alternatives which are nutritionally comparable, e.g., in terms of protein content. We consider replacements that minimize cropland use for each of the main US animal-based food categories. We find that although the characteristic conventional retail-to-consumer food losses are ≈30% for plant and animal products, the opportunity food losses of beef, pork, dairy, poultry, and eggs are 96%, 90%, 75%, 50%, and 40%, respectively. This arises because plant-based replacement diets can produce 20-fold and twofold more nutritionally similar food per cropland than beef and eggs, the most and least resource-intensive animal categories, respectively. Although conventional and opportunity food losses are both targets for improvement, the high opportunity food losses highlight the large potential savings beyond conventionally defined food losses. Concurrently replacing all animal-based items in the US diet with plant-based alternatives will add enough food to feed, in full, 350 million additional people, well above the expected benefits of eliminating all supply chain food waste. These results highlight the importance of dietary shifts to improving food availability and security.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3804-3809
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
StatePublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


FundersFunder number
Beck Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research
European Research Council
Helmsley Charitable Foundation
Israel Science Foundation740/16
Ullmann Family Foundation
Wolfson Family Charitable Trust
Horizon 2020 Framework Programme646827
H2020 European Research CouncilNOVCARBFIX 646827
Israel Science Foundation


    • Animal-based diet
    • Food systems
    • Livestock
    • Opportunity food loss
    • Plant-based diet


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