By: Adrienne Suhm
When looking at the big picture of global climate change, many aspects remain outside of our individual scope of control. There is so much progress needed on an industry and government level that it can be difficult to know what meaningful lifestyle changes will actually make a positive impact on the environment. But in recent years, a multitude of research has concluded that more than any other single lifestyle area, adopting a plant-based diet will have a meaningful effect on the planet and is one of the top five most impactful measures society can take to stop climate change.
Our planet is host to a global herd of 60 billion livestock animals, which occupy 26% of all terrestrial surface area and contribute more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere than every type of transportation combined. Per gram of protein, the emissions caused by producing beef or lamb are 250 times higher than those from the production of legumes, while emissions from pork and poultry are 40 times higher. Beyond greenhouse gas emissions, factory farms and feedlots are also connected to environmental contamination as a result of manure, pesticides, fertilizers, and and disease that leach into the surrounding ecosystem.
In addition to causing large-scale land degradation and carbon emissions, livestock also require massive amounts of resources to live and grow. Cows need up to 2,400 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef, meaning that the creation of one cheeseburger takes the water equivalent of a two-hour long shower. By contrast, producing a pound of vegan staples like rice and wheat require just 299 and 25 gallons of water, respectively. In fact, a 2017 study published by Nature found that a meat-based diet required significantly more water and land area per day while contributing far higher carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere than either a vegetarian or vegan diet.
To understand the disparity between resources needed to produce vegan versus animal-based products, consider the basic principles of the food chain: animals must consume either plants or other animals to live and grow. The overall environmental footprint of meat must account for all of the previous organisms consumed by that animal, so eating higher up the food chain causes unnecessary resource expenditure. By instead adopting a plant-based diet, humans can go straight to the basic source of nourishment with a far lower environmental impact. According to a 2016 study by the Oxford Martin School’s Future of Food program, if the entire human population went vegetarian, food-related greenhouse gas emissions would decline by 60%, and if everyone went vegan, food-related emissions would drop by 70%. Furthermore, if all humans went vegetarian by 2050, global mortality would decrease by up to 10% due to the reduction of meat consumption-related diseases and reduction of caloric intake. Although a separate study by Elementa in the same year concluded that livestock play an important role in maintaining productivity and biodiversity of some arable land, the number of global livestock animals would need to decline dramatically before reaping any possible environmental benefits. A reduction in overall meat consumption from present levels can only have a positive impact on the planet.
Keep in mind that the transportation of vegan food products around the globe can also cause an unintended environmental impact. A simple solution is to shop local, especially at farmer’s markets, which often connect customers directly to a nearby farmer or supplier. You can also opt to create a home garden, which will provide vegan produce with a lower water or resource expenditure than fruits and vegetables from the grocery store.
It may come as a surprise that humans have no biological need to eat meat, and our omnivore bodies are much better suited for plant consumption than animal consumption. Although our ancestors ate small quantities of meat as an extra source of calories when and where they could find it, plant-based foods made up a much larger proportion of early human diets, and meat has only recently become a large share of the “western diet.” Plant foods represent a complete source of nutrition for humans, and adhering to a varied diet will ensure that you consume all of the necessary macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals to thrive.
With no physical or nutritional need to consume meat, adopting a plant-based diet can actually have positive impacts on your health. The number of vegans worldwide has increased by 160 percent over the last decade, and for a good reason: veganism is associated with a decrease in many food-related ailments, from heart disease to diabetes to certain forms of cancer.
Best of all, this lifestyle change can be adopted straightaway. You can immediately begin limiting meat consumption at home and seeking out vegetarian or vegan options at restaurants. Whether it be for the environment, your personal health, or the treatment of animals, consider a more plant-based approach to your diet.
Image Credit: Irving Penn, Salad Ingredients