Regardless of your diet, you may have heard the common thought that vegans and vegetarians have less of an environmental impact. In fact, there have been many campaigns in the United States dedicated to demonstrating the positive effects of veganism on the environment. Though people follow a vegetarian diet or vegan diet for a variety of reasons, one of the most-cited factors is reducing their carbon footprint. (1)
We've known that meat production, in general, follows some unsustainable practices in the US. However, there is some debate between experts about the effects of increasing vegetable intake. Let's dive into the ways being a vegetarian might just help combat climate change.
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In a 1971 report by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the writers claimed that a diet high in plant-based foods and lower in animal products has less impact on the environment than the average US diet. (2) In 2003, a Cornell University study concluded that, in comparison to lactovegetarian diets, meat-based diets use more water resources, land, and energy.
However, other researchers are less certain. A 2013 paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that eating patterns high in plant-based food had the greatest amount of greenhouse gas emissions. So, what is the reason for this dissent?
According to The Washington Post in 2015, the difference lies in the menu and some other factors. For example, according to Carnegie Mellon University research, lettuce production creates a similar amount of greenhouse gas emissions as beef production. That same study also reports that the ingredients in junk foods have a low environmental impact. (3)
How Do We Measure Food Sustainability
To get to the bottom of this problem, let's look at how we talk about sustainability. Many consumers are becoming more aware of the ways our diets affect nature and global warming. For example, the detrimental effects of palm oil production around the world have resulted in people making more ethical purchases.
To measure the sustainability of food production, scientists use carbon footprinting measures. Carbon footprints measure the greenhouse gases that a product or service releases from production to the end of its life. These gases include:
These emissions cause global warming by trapping heat in our atmosphere. When it comes to your food, researchers account for several factors when determining greenhouse gas emissions (GHG):
As you can see, there is a lot to consider when we look at food consumption. For example, while organic food production uses less energy than factory farming, it usually requires greater land use. The academics from Carnegie Melon say that the highest contributors of greenhouse gases are shellfish, beef, lettuce, lamb, and cucumbers.
Going Vegan for the Environment
Looking at the statistics can help clarify the biggest producers of greenhouse emissions. Some of the claimed benefits of reducing meat consumption include:
1) Avoiding Extra CO 2
According to the United Nations 2006 report, the livestock sector makes up nine percent of human-related CO2. A vegetarian diet could reduce GHG emissions by 2.5 percent. A similar scenario to following a veggie diet for one year would be not driving your car for six months.
2) Using Less Water
Meat production uses more water than plant-protein production. For example, it can take over six times as much water to produce two pounds of beef vs two pounds of wheat.
Another vegetarian diet benefit is reducing water pollution. Our water becomes contaminated by:
Farm animals from factory farms produce more waste than the US human population, and it harms the ecosystems in rivers and streams. These farms do not have sewage treatment systems, so the waste destroys topsoil, contaminates the air, and affects human life.
3) Reducing Land Destruction
According to the UN report, livestock farming leads to deforestation and soil erosion. Much of the world's grazing land has been degraded from livestock rearing. Additionally, one-third of our agricultural land is used for animal agriculture.
Why does deforestation matter? Loss of forestry releases the carbon that can be found in trees, which increases greenhouse gas emissions. This also creates an issue with biodiversity.
4) Lowering Production of Nitrous Oxide and Methane
Methane emissions are responsible for almost half of climate change induced by humans. Sheep and cows cause a great percent of these emissions. The livestock industry also generates acid rain contributor, ammonia. According to EarthSave, a reduction in red meat and beef consumption could reduce climate change faster than a shift from our current technologies.(4)
5) Getting Towards A Sustainable Future
Human consumption is bound to increase as the human population does. Food production for all countries requires 30% of our total land surface, 20% of our fossil fuels, and a lot of fresh water. Adopting a vegetarian diet would use about three-times fewer resources than a meat diet.
According to a New York Times article, there are tradeoffs to any diet. However, many health experts agree that cutting out red meat is good for the planet. Red meat production uses a lot of animal feed, water supplies, and land. Compared to plant-based food, red meat can have over a 100-times more significant effect on the planet.
For a vegetarian diet, it's all about watching what you eat and how much. If a person replaces meat with forms of dairy such as milk and cheese, your emission levels could remain high. Some fish also have high carbon footprints. Ultimately, scientists recommended eating from the bottom fo the food chain. Crops such as beans, grains, and fruit should fill your plate. And, if you do eat meat, consider swapping out lamb and beef for poultry.
Vegetarian diets are not free of problems. Food waste can cause sustainability issues for any diet. So, it is important to reduce your waste by eating leftovers, not buying more food than you can consume, and freezing food when necessary.
The answer to this question is complicated. Researchers agree that the current method for livestock production negatively impacts human lives, cities, and oceans. However, some researchers point out that eliminating animal agriculture altogether could also have detrimental effects.
According to research from Oxford University, simply decreasing red meat intake could greatly reduce carbon emissions. In fact, the flexitarian diet is rising in popularity as one way to positively impact the environment. By 2050, a flexitarian approach to human health could reduce GHG by 52%.
Low-impact meats could even emit less gas than cocoa beans or coffee. And, more sustainable cattle farming could reduce soil erosion by adding nutrients back into the soil. If you are concerned about climate change and your diet, consider replacing your red meat (such as steak( and dairy products with chicken or turkeys.
If everyone on Earth adopted a vegan diet. we could see a 49% decrease in GHG emission. Even the animal products with the lowest impact still have a greater impact than meat substitutes. Veganism environment effects also include:
However, many studies are uncertain of the true ramifications of such a thing.
If every country went vegan, there would be more pressure to produce certain ingredients. We've already experienced the harmful effects of over-producing nuts such as almonds (which require large amounts of water) and avocados.
Becoming an Environmental Vegan
Overall, a vegan diet is usually better for the planet than even a vegetarian diet. It reduces the feed production and fossil fuel use that the production of meat increases. However, your personal footprint also depends on many other factors, such as the source of your food.
If you're not ready to go vegan, studies show that limiting your intake of meat and eggs per week can help significantly. Individuals also have the ability to put limits on how much food they waste and where it comes from. Your contribution to protecting the planet lies in making sustainable choices, such as only buying from a company that uses good practices.
When it comes to the environment, vegan eating can reduce animal cruelty as well as your ecological footprint. The conditions for mass meat productivity promote the destruction of rainforests and waterways. Incorporating vegan options into your appetite can promote better balance and a positive transformation.
Wallis, Ian. "Is vegetarianism bad for the environment?." Australian Zoologist 38.3 (2017): 379-389.
Lappé, F. M. (1982). Diet for a small planet. 10th anniversary ed., completely rev. & updated. New York: Ballantine Books.
Tom MS, Fischbeck PS, Hendrickson CT (2015) Energy use, blue water footprint, and greenhouse gas emissions for current food consumption patterns and dietary recommendations in the U.S. Eviron Syst Decis. doi:10.1007/s10669-015-9577-y
“EarthSave Report: A New Global Warming Strategy: How Environmentalists are Overlooking Vegetarianism as the Most Effective Tool Against Climate Change in Our Lifetimes,” Noam Mohr, Aug. 2005: http://earthsave.org/globalwarming.htm(link is external)