Millions of jobs could be created in Latin America and the Caribbean – if the region switches to a plant-based diet

Agricultural - Natural Resource Economics

Adopting plant-based foods grown using sustainable farming methods could generate 19 million jobs.

Image: REUTERS/Daniel LeClair

 This article was previously published in the World Economic Forum Blog, on September 8, 2020.

  • A joint study suggests moving to a plant-based diet is key to help decarbonize Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • 19 million new jobs could be created by the move away from animal-based food.
  • But the region is one of the biggest exporters of beef and poultry.
  • And it is not clear if workers in meat-based agriculture could transition easily to new plant-based jobs.

Improved health, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and countless new jobs.

These are some of the potential benefits of switching to a plant-based diet, highlighted by a new report on the impact of Latin America and the Caribbean transitioning to a net-zero economy.

The joint study, by the International Labour Organization and the Inter-American Development Bank, sees moving to a plant-based diet as a central pillar of regional efforts to cut CO2 emissions.

While abandoning established diets that include meat, poultry, fish and dairy produce could lead to an estimated 4.3 million job losses in the region by 2030, adopting plant-based foods grown using sustainable farming methods could generate 19 million new employment opportunities, the report predicts.

Food for thought

But while the benefits of going plant-based may be clear, changing the diet of an entire region is not without its challenges. Particularly when the region in question relies heavily on animal rearing for its livelihood and is one of the world’s biggest exporters of both beef and poultry, with demand for the region’s meat growing.

That said, the climate crisis may prevent beef and poultry farmers pursuing a business-as-usual approach in the coming years. Farmed livestock generates 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions related to human activity, with cows responsible for the largest share.

Zebu cattle are seen in a farm in Paulinia, Brazil July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker - RC194318FF30


Cattle are responsible for 65% of livestock emissions.

Image: REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

As global air temperatures warm, farmers in Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere will face increasing pressure to switch to more sustainable practices to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Rearing plants in place of animals offers a way to reduce the region’s dependence on livestock, while creating new opportunities to replace livelihoods dependent on farming.

Jobs created and destroyed by decarbonisation, by gender.


Jobs created and destroyed by decarbonisation, by gender.

Image: ILO

Not an easy transition

Decarbonizing farming would potentially create more jobs for males than females, which reflects the current gender bias in the labour market, but both sexes would see an increase in new work opportunities.

Male-dominated occupations look set to gain 18.5 million jobs and lose 6 million by 2030, whereas occupations employing women could gain 4 million and lose 1.5 million, the report finds.

Jobs created and destroyed by decarbonisation, by skills level.


Jobs created and destroyed by decarbonisation, by skills level.

Image: ILO

Decarbonizing the region’s farming would likely create predominantly medium- and low-skilled jobs, suitable for burgeoning plant-based agriculture and food manufacturing sectors. However, medium- and low-skilled workers would also face the most job losses.

While overall job numbers look positive, the report’s authors express doubt whether workers currently involved in animal rearing could transfer easily to plant-based employment. There is also scepticism about the reality of a mass switch to a plant-based diet happening throughout the region.

It’s true that in many parts of the world, plant-based foods are more prevalent on supermarket shelves in recent years, which could be the result of health or environmental considerations. In the US, the plant-based food industry was worth more than $5 billion in 2019, up 11% from around $4.5 billion the previous year. This rapid market expansion compared to just 2% growth in overall retail food sales.

It remains to be seen how quickly, if at all, the world is prepared to break with its meat consumption habits and move to more sustainable options.

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