(Updated February 25, 2020.) Adopting a sustainable vegan diet could help preserve the environment, fight climate change, and establish a sustainable food system.
The planet needs us more than ever right now. Sea levels are rising and temperatures are becoming more extreme. Storms and disasters are more severe and occur more often. And a growing number of people are feeling the effects of climate change.
A lot of the public is eager to help however they can. Many are pushing for a ban on straws and bringing their own shopping bags to the supermarket. Some take shorter showers while others bike to work. But a growing amount of research links animal agriculture to a myriad of environmental issues. And many people are looking to their plates for a solution.
In 2018, the world’s most comprehensive analysis of farming’s effect on the environment found that a vegan diet is the “single biggest thing” an individual can do to lessen their impact on the planet. This research, carried out by Oxford University researchers, is motivating people to switch up their eating habits.
Impossible Foods, known for its beefy but plant-based Impossible Burger, commissioned a third-party research firm to survey people in the U.S. about their opinions on vegan meat. The research unveiled the public’s heightened attention to the environment, especially among younger generations.
In 2016, concern for the environment didn’t even make it in the top 10 reasons for buying plant-based meat. This year, the environment is the third most popular motivator, showing the public’s rising interest in eating eco-friendly food.
Animal Agriculture and Climate Change
In September 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) named meat “the world’s most urgent problem.” UNEP stated: “Our use of animals as a food-production technology has brought us to the verge of catastrophe.”
In order to reach the objectives of the Paris Agreement, a “massive decrease in the scale of animal agriculture” is needed, it added. The Paris Agreement brings together most of the world’s countries with the shared goal of limiting global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.
If temperature rise goes beyond 2 degrees, climate change symptoms will get significantly worse. These include including extreme weather events such as storms and wildfires, as well as rising sea-levels.
The world’s growing population has led to a sizeable increase in animal farming. Beef production has more than doubled since the 60s, whilst the production of chicken meat has increased by a factor of nearly 10, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The bodies of chicken, beef, and pigs are bigger than ever, thanks to breeding tactics, with their weight increasing by 20-30 percent in the last six decades. Cow’s milk production per animal has increased by 30 percent, as has chicken egg production.
Significant amounts of natural resources are required to keep these industries running. Animal agriculture is also a leading generation of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane and nitrous oxide.
When speaking about climate change and emissions, most people are quick to point the finger at transportation. We shun celebrities who fly too often, praise electric cars, and applaud those who choose to cycle or walk. But research finds livestock has an even greater impact than the transportation sector.
“The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket ship combined,” stated UNEP. According to the FAO, Livestock is responsible for 18 percent of all anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientific American says that plant-based food creates drastically fewer emissions than animal-based food. To produce half a pound of beef, the emission output is equivalent to driving a car 9.8 miles. To produce half a pound of potatoes, the emissions equate to driving the same car 0.17 miles.
The World Counts highlights that it takes 75 times more energy to produce meat than corn. And beef production is to blame for six times more greenhouse gas emissions than peas, a primary ingredient in vegan meat products like the Beyond Burger.
The type of emissions generated is also of importance. On average, a cow releases between 70 and 120 kg of methane a year. There are around 1.5 billion cows on the planet, and methane’s global warming potential is 23 times that of CO2.
The website Time for Change compared the impact of cows and driving by converting methane emissions into their CO2 equivalent. It found that one cow’s annual methane output is the equivalent of driving a car 12,500 km (or 7,800 miles) per year.
Natural Resources and Diet
In addition to carbon emissions, different foods require different quantities of natural resources. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is an independent body that examines and reports on ethical issues in biology and medicine. And the council recently published a “Bioethics Briefing Note,” exploring the ethics of animal-based and vegan meat.
Nuffield Council’s new briefing note highlights the impact of high-intensity farming on both animals and the environment. The ethics note directly compares this to the sustainability and health of plant-based alternatives and clean meat.
“Almost 50 percent of the grains produced in the world are fed to livestock,” says The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “Yet there remain about 800 million people suffering from hunger and malnutrition mostly in the developing countries.”
According to the Nuffield Council, plant-based meat uses 72-99 percent less water and 47-99 percent less land than intensive farming. It also produces 30-90 percent fewer greenhouse gases. In contrast, intensive farming “can result in significant use of freshwater, greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”
“There are longstanding concerns about the welfare of animals in certain farming systems,” continued Nuffield Council. “And some people have fundamental objections to the rearing and killing of animals for food.“
“These problems support an ethical imperative to reduce meat production and consumption,” concludes the Nuffield Council. “International bodies, experts, and NGOs are calling for people to reduce the amount of meat in their diets, or to stop eating meat altogether.” Nuffield Council added: “The proportion of people willing to try plant-based and cultured meat alternatives is increasing.”
How Does a Vegan Diet Benefit the Climate?
A 2016 study published in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences found that the world’s food-related emissions would drop by 70 percent by 2050 if everyone decided to go vegan.
Lead author Dr. Marco Springmann, of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, said: “What we eat greatly influences our personal health and the global environment. Imbalanced diets, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables, and high in red and processed meat, are responsible for the greatest health burden globally and in most regions.”
He continued, “At the same time the food system is also responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore a major driver of climate change.”
The aforementioned Oxford University farming analysis concluded that going vegan is the most influential thing one can do to fight climate change. The analysis—which was published in the journal Science—studied the environmental impact of different food industries. Researchers analyzed data from around 40,000 farms in 119 countries.
They studied 40 food items that make up 90 percent of all of the food consumed. They looked at the entire production process, including land use, emissions, freshwater use, and air and water pollution. The researchers found that even though meat and dairy deplete most of the planet’s resources, these foods only provide 18 percent of the world’s calories and 37 percent of protein.
Lead researcher Joseph Poore told the Guardian that adopting a vegan diet is “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use.” Poore himself became vegan after his first year of research.
What if Everyone Went Vegan?
A report called Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030 predicts that the beef and dairy industries could “totally collapse” by 2030. It estimates that following this downfall, other animal-based food sectors like chicken, fish, and pig will also come to an end.
So what would happen if everyone was eating only plant-based food?
1. We Could Save the Seas
Our oceans are struggling. A 2018 report published in the journal Current Biology discovered that 87 percent of the world’s oceans are dying. The lead researcher of the study Kendall Jones of the University of Queensland, Australia, told the Guardian: “We were astonished by just how little marine wilderness remains.”
“The ocean is immense, covering over 70 percent of our planet, but we’ve managed to significantly impact almost all of this vast ecosystem,” added Jones.
The ocean’s declining health—as well as the consumption of seafood—is depleting fish stocks at a rapid rate. Some experts have said that the world’s oceans could be empty of fish by 2048. More people are avoiding single-use plastics like straws due to their longevity and the consequent impact on animals and the ocean. However, half of the plastic found in the ocean comes from fishing nets, not straws.
A rising number of plant-based seafood options — including everything from vegan crab and shrimp to fillets and tuna — helps people enjoy the foods they love without harming marine life or their habitats. Even meat sourced from land animals could be hurting the ocean. The widespread application of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used to produce feed crops can enter and pollute waterways.
2. We’d Have More Land
As shown by the Nuffield Council, raising animals for food also impacts our land. The practice has been linked to desertification, deforestation, and poor soil quality. Research published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition outlined that a meat-eater’s diet requires 17 times more land than a vegetarian’s.
The Oxford University analysis of farming found that 80 percent of the planet’s total farmland is used to rear livestock. Beef production requires 36 times more land than the production of plant-based protein like peas.
The researchers stated that if everyone went vegan, global farmland use would drop by 75 percent. This reduction would free up landmass the size of Australia, China, the EU, and the U.S. combined.
Runoff from factory farms and livestock grazing is also a major contributor to the pollution of rivers and lakes. According to Cowspiracy, 70 to 90 percent of freshwater pollution in western countries is linked to animal agriculture.
3. We’d Waste Less Water
The research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also said that a meat-based diet requires 14 times more water than a meat-free one. A seperate report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers stated that more than 15,000 liters of water are required to produce 1kg of beef.
It takes more than 10,000 liters to produce 1kg of mutton, and more than 5,000 to produce pork and butter. In contrast, the water requirements of plant-based food are generally much lower. Just 287 liters of water can produce 1kg of potatoes. Banana, cabbage, and tomato require 790, 237, and 214 liters respectively.
This is notable given the water shortages occurring around the world. Experts told the Guardian in March that England could run out of water within 25 years. “Around 25 years from now, where those [demand and supply] lines cross is known by some as the ‘jaws of death’ – the point at which we will not have enough water to supply our needs, unless we take action to change things,” the chief executive of the Environment Agency Sir James Bevan said.
Research by the European Commission Joint Research Centre—which is the most detailed study on the impact of nationwide food consumption on water footprints—uncovered that plant-based food carries the smallest water footprint. In fact, a vegan diet uses five times less water than a meat-based diet.
5. We Could Save Species
It’s not just the animals we eat that suffer at the hands of the meat, dairy, and egg industries. Wild animal populations are struggling more than ever before. A review published in the journal Science said that species extinction rates are up to one thousand times higher than before humans existed.
Habitat destruction caused by the agriculture sector is the chief cause of wildlife mass extinction. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) explained in its Appetite for Destruction summary report that humankind’s appetite for meat places an “enormous strain on our natural resources and is a driving force behind wide-scale biodiversity loss.”
The report claims that animal product consumption is the reason behind 60 percent of all biodiversity loss. Wild animals including wolves, horses, mountain lions, kangaroos, owls, foxes, koalas, and otters are harmed and often killed when land is cleared to make room for the animals raised for human consumption.
In the fishing industry, billions of marine animals are caught and killed unintentionally. Animals include endangered fish, whales, sea turtles, dolphins, and seals. These animals are known as bycatch, which makes up 40 percent of the world’s total catch. This equates to 63 billion pounds a year, according to a report released by Oceana in March 2014.
PNAS research estimates that wild animals make up just 4 percent of life on Earth, with livestock accounting for 60 percent of all life. The study blamed the human race for causing the loss of 83 percent of all wild animals and 50 percent of all plants.
Ditching animal products to go vegan could give wild animal populations the chance to rebalance and their habitats the opportunity to thrive.