“By eating meat we share the responsibility of climate change, the destruction of our forests, and the poisoning of our air and water. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian will make a difference in the health of our planet.”
— Thích Nhất Hạnh
Veganism and Reduced Environmental Impact by Conscious Contributor Paul Rende
In a powerful and inspiring time when so many of us are coming together to stand up for the environment, it is the perfect opportunity to look at the choices we make and what we, as a species, can be doing to help save the planet. The environmental impact caused by industrial factory farming has been well documented. As scientists, environmentalists, activists and some government officials work diligently to shine light on the need for swift change to mitigate our carbon footprint, we need to fully digest our culpability for the current environmental crisis. We should also examine the intrinsic power we hold as consumers to bring about the monumental shift away from the existing paradigm and toward a more sustainable model. The most fitting (and easiest!) place to start is with what we eat.
Recently published in the journal Science is the most comprehensive research and analysis to date of the negative effects farming has on the environment. Led by Joseph Poore at the University of Oxford, UK, the data set is based on 39,000 commercially viable farms in 119 countries and covers 40 food products that represent 90% of global protein and calorie consumption. In the study, Poore establishes five environmental impact indicators: land use, fresh water withdrawals (use) weighted by local water scarcity, greenhouse gas or climate change emissions (GHG), acidifying emissions (air pollution) and eutrophication emissions (water pollution).
In light of his findings, it’s quite obvious that feeding 7.6 billion people is degrading land and aquatic ecosystems, depleting water resources and driving climate change. He concludes that the single most substantial way an individual can reduce his or her negative environmental impact is to avoid eating animal products. Yes, to become vegan! Eating a vegan diet “is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” Poole said, “as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.”
As this can be a polarizing issue for many, consider the following analytical findings of Mr. Poole as they pertain to the environmental impact of producing and eating animal products. While providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories, meat, eggs and dairy use 83% of the world’s farmland and contribute nearly 60% of agriculture’s different harmful emissions. Today’s agricultural system covers 43% of the world’s ice-and desert-free land, making it incredibly resource intensive. Other recent studies have shown that 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. It has been proven that even the lowest impact animal products cause much more harm to the environment than the least sustainable vegetable or grain substitute.
Research reveals that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%, ‘an area equivalent to the U.S., China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world.’ Loss of pristine wilderness to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of various wildlife. Harmful emissions can fundamentally alter the species composition of natural ecosystems, therefore reducing biodiversity and ecological resilience.
It is important to note the damaging effects emanating from feed production for the animals which far exceeds that of vegetable protein farming. Deforestation for agriculture is dominated by feed (67%), particularly soy, maize and pasture, that results in losses of above- and below-ground carbon. Animals create additional emissions from intestinal fermentation, manure and aquaculture ponds. In the data, one can also see quite a large variability between different ways of producing the same food. One example is that beef cattle raised on deforested land result in twelve times more greenhouse gases and use fifty times more land than those grazing in natural pasture.
However, when comparing beef to a plant protein such as peas, even the lowest impact beef is responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and thirty-six times more land. This large variability does present an opportunity to curtail the harmful effects without the need for the global population to become vegan. If plant-based food replaced the meat and dairy from high-impact farms, it would yield two-thirds of the benefits of eradicating all meat and dairy production. Poole notes that if the $500 billion or more in yearly agricultural subsidies could be properly diverted to sustainable and healthy foods, then we could start heading in the right direction. Poole, among others, advocates the use of labels on food that state their environmental impact so that consumers could make more educated choices and use the least damaging options.
Yes, farm organizations and international policy-makers need to come together and implement productive safety protocols for global agriculture, but we consumers must be the driving force behind the movement to curb the ever-increasing environmental damage caused by consuming animal products. Dietary change can deliver environmental benefits on a scale that producers cannot achieve. Here in the United States, the average person consumes 271 pounds of meat annually, which is three times the global per capita average. Moving from our current diet that relies heavily on unnecessary meat and dairy consumption to a strictly plant-based diet carries transformational potential. This shift in diet in the U.S could reduce our agricultural system’s hazardous emissions from 61-73%! That would be a remarkable feat that would propel us toward healing ourselves and our planet.
Poole, J. and Nemecek, T. (2018). “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.” Science. Retrieved from: http://josephpoore.com/
Carrington, D. (2018, May 31). “Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth.” The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://theguardian.com
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