Top Environmental Benefits For Going Vegan
Can choosing plants over animal products really decrease your environmental footprint? Some scientists argue that eliminating meat from your diet is the single greatest thing you can do to help the earth.
We’ll go over the top 11 ecological impacts of animal agriculture and how switching to eating plants alleviates the strain on our precious resources.
Do you want to see the environmental footprint of your diet before we get started? Take the quiz here.
Now that you know your own footprint, let’s have a look at the environmental benefits of veganism.
Resource Use Efficiency: Vegan vs Omnivorous Diets
Vegans are responsible for the footprint of everything involved to grow, harvest, process, and transport the plants they eat.
• Land required to grow plants
• Water for the plants
• Pesticides used on growing plants
• Transport of plants
• Preparation and packaging of plants
• Water to drink
• Deforestation of land for the plants
• Animals killed by pesticides and commercial agriculture
By no means is a plant-based diet carbon footprintless as often pointed out by meat lovers. A human on the plant based diet requires roughly 700 square metres of cultivated land to survive per year.
An omnivore diet, however, includes all the resource use above in addition to the following:
• Land where animals live
• Water for animals to drink through their life
• Medications for animals
• Processing facilities of animals
• Transportation of animals
• Deforestation of land for animal feed
• Water used to grow animal feed
• Transportation of animal feed
• Processing of animal feed
Just comparing the different resources required in these two diets can clearly show the extent people go to for the taste of meat. This is why animal products are considered an inefficient source for energy conversion due to the extraordinary amount of resources involved in their production.
Studies have shown that beef is at the lowest end of the spectrum at 3% conversion rate, with the most efficient animal product being eggs at 17%. A 3% conversion rate here essentially means that every 1,000 calories of input to a cow results in 30 calories of beef for the end consumer.
Let’s have a deeper look into some of the biggest positive impacts that switching to a fully plant-based diet will have on the planet.
1. Rearing Animals Requires Considerably More Land Use Than Plants
Did you know 80% of the planet’s total available farmland is used to rear livestock? This includes the land cows live on and the land required to grow their food. Beef production uses 36 times more land when compared to the production of peas or other similar high protein plant-based food.
What many people do not realize is that land is continually being cleared in areas like the Amazon rainforest to make room for more cattle farming. Livestock and the feed crops have caused over 550,372 square kilometres of rainforest to be cleared, with this number rising every day. This is an area roughly the size of Spain and Portugal together!
Grass fed beef is not the solution.
Some people point to grass fed beef as being the answer to the inhumane treatment of factory farmed cows, however our world simply does not have enough landmass to accommodate the enormous demand for beef and dairy.
A recent study showed that the current conventional system for rearing cattle required 60% of the animals, 25% of the water, 50% of the land and 70% of the fossil fuel energy as compared to grass-fed cattle.
The carbon footprint was once again highest in the grass-fed production system when comparing it to natural or conventional cattle rearing systems. It was almost double at 26,000,000 metric tons emitted per 1,000,000 kg of beef.
2. The Water Needed For An Omnivorous Diet Is Up To 7 Times Higher Than Plant-Based
One of the first statistics I read about animal agriculture and veganism was:
1 hamburger patty requires 2,500 litres of water to produce, which is an equivalent amount of water to 2 months of long showers! (Source)
If we consider that cows live for roughly two years before they are slaughtered, and each day they require up to 100 litres of water, their resource needs quickly adds up. We also must consider the irrigation of all the crops the animals consume as well.
A study by the European Commission Joint Research Centre found that a vegan diet uses five times less water than a meat-based diet.
Currently more than 70% of the Earth’s fresh water is used in agriculture. Of that, a large chunk goes straight to animal livestock.
3. Eating Plants Gives Us A Chance To Slow Down Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Cool Off
Greenhouse gas emissions since the industrialisation of our planet have been accelerating climate change. Now we see how this is endangering the animal and human populations.
Due to the increased amount of gases emitted, such as carbon dioxide, the sun’s energy is getting trapped in our atmosphere. This is causing the global average temperatures to rise. The real trouble is our oceans absorb the majority of this heat.
Did you know that scientists hypothesize that 50-85% of the world’s oxygen is created by phytoplankton in the ocean?
If ocean temperatures continue rising, we can only imagine the devastating impacts. The increasing temperatures have increased the rate of melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, which threatens the endemic species on the far reaches of our planet. It also puts many low-lying island nations in a precarious position.
Increasing temperatures have also been linked to longer and tougher droughts, stronger hurricanes, and erratic weather patterns.
4. Animals Produce A Devastating Amount Of Agriculture’s Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Just by cutting out meat and dairy from your diet, researchers at the University of Oxford found that you can reduce your carbon footprint from your food by 73%.
The study which was published in the Journal Science conducted an in-depth analysis on the effects of animal agriculture. They collected data from almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries to look at the trends and patterns. The findings clearly showed that the production of meat and dairy is responsible for upwards of 60% of the carbon emissions from the agricultural sector.
If you look at Brazil, 29% of the carbon dioxide emissions of the entire country are caused by the rapid deforestation to make room for soybean plantations (for cattle feed)! Once again, the carbon emissions include the effects of losing the dense rainforest cover, machinery, production of crops etc.
You can personally slash your carbon dioxide footprint by 10% by eating plants.
If you were to eliminate meat and dairy from your diet you could save up to 1.7 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere per year.
5. Less Cattle Grazing Means Less Methane Loaded Cow Burps And Farts
Another gas that is discussed far less than carbon dioxide is methane.
It has a warming potential up to 30 times higher than carbon dioxide. Methane is also one of the biggest by-products of cows.
Due to their digestion system biology, cows burp and fart an astounding 70 – 120kg of methane per year.
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization accredit ruminant livestock with 14.5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
6. Reduction In Chemicals Required To Grow Soybean Monocultures
The majority of the world’s cattle is currently fed on the most efficient protein energy source out there: the soya bean. These beans are grown in enormous quantities with Brazil’s expected soy plantations reaching an astonishing 30 million hectares by 2020.
If we were to look to our ancestors, we would see how devastatingly we are destroying the Earth’s fertile topsoils. The soil is an incredibly complex and dynamic system of organisms which require vital nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen for food crops to grow.
What is happening now is that enormous agricultural supergiant companies are looking to maximize their short-term yields and pump out yearly monocultures on exhausted land. Every plant that grows in the soil takes out the carbon and nitrogen it needs, so with every passing year the soil becomes more depleted…
In the olden days, or in regenerative agriculture movements, this is rectified by giving the land a year or two to recover or leaving some of the organic matter behind to decompose and provide these vital nutrients.
The lack of natural minerals remaining in the soil of many monster agriculture farms forces farmers to use more and more chemicals to keep their crop yields up. This also leads to increasing numbers of synthetic herbicides, fertilisers, insecticides and bactericide. These chemicals enter the soil and surrounding waterways, eventually leading into nearby rivers which travel all the way into the ocean.
7. Slowing The Spread Of Ocean Dead Zones Due To Chemical Run Off
One of the side effects of all these chemicals in the ocean is the creation of massive ocean dead zones. These are uninhabitable areas in the water where less oxygen is dissolved, and all mobile marine life leave the area leaving nothing behind but a biological desert.
Currently there are over 530 documented dead zones which cover 246,048 square kilometers. Not only do pesticides and herbicides contribute to ocean dead zones, but also the flatulence and feces of farmed animals.
To keep animals healthy, farmers are required to use large amounts of medications and antibiotics which ends up leaching into the surrounding environment, including our oceans.
8. Keeping The Oceans From Dying
Our oceans are getting depleted, and the current rate of fishing is predicted to leave our oceans virtually fishless by the year 2050.
Sustainable fishing is a myth, since both wild caught fish and farmed fish come with their array of environmental problems.
Wild caught fishing industry depends on trawlers which drag massive nets along the ocean floor, destroying deep sea coral reefs which can take up to 40,000 years to grow. They are also indiscriminate in what they catch, with the global bycatch making up 40% of the total catch.
Fishing bycatch includes dolphins, whales, turtles and anything else that swims into the wrong place at the wrong time.
Farmed fishing comes with similar problems as mass animal agriculture. The fish are corralled in small pools where they can hardly swim and live in each other’s feces. Once again, to keep them from dying farmers are required to provide large amounts of medication which either stays in their tanks or in the case of open sea pens, leaches out into the wild.
It has been referred to as “a chemical race in the seas.” Harvests are down due to sea lice and diseases. The surroundings of the farm’s environments are drastically changing. The feces, uneaten food pellets and other organic matter from fish farms can also alter the oxygen levels in surrounding oceans which can throw off natural ocean ecosystems. (Source)
9. Eliminating Massive Monocrop Farms That Destroy Biodiversity
Most of the deforestation due to animal feed soybean production currently occurs in South America. There the warm climate and rich (ex-Amazonian) soil makes it the ideal location to grow soybeans, which has led to 17% of the Amazon to be lost in the last 50 years.
These previously rich biodiversity hotspots suddenly disappear to be replaced by monocultures. Stunning places such as Brazilian Cerrado Region, Amazon Rainforest, Atlantic Forest of South America and Grand Chaco are being decimated.
Basically, with less demand for animal products we can return the monoculture farms to rainforests for the native species to thrive again.
10. Slowing Deforestation Caused By Clearing Forests For Cattle Ranching
The growth of demand for meat caused a dramatic shift in the deforestation in the Amazon in the late 20th century. From 1970 to the mid-2000s the deforestation reached its peak.
Thanks to interventions by the Brazilian government, this declined by 2004. Still, 65-70% of the deforestation in the Amazon has been directly linked to cattle ranching.
Every second, an area of forest the size of two football fields is cleared somewhere on the planet – from Brazil to El Salvador.
Estimations show that roughly 137 species of plants, animals, and insects go extinct every day due to deforestation. Many of which we never even had the opportunity to discover. The Earth’s rainforest lungs which used to cover 14% of the earth’s surface have been pushed down to 6%.
11. Saving Our Vital, Fertile Topsoils
The current commercial agricultural system has caused half of the fertile topsoil to be lost in the past 150 years. This is due to over tilling, monocultures, overuse, deforestation and heavy chemical use. The removal of roots from the earth means soil is more easily washed away.
Monocultures destroy the soil’s ability to regenerate naturally and the heavy mechanization of these of farms has caused compaction.
The side effects include far more than just having less fertile land to grow on. It has caused increased pollution and sedimentation in rivers, clogging of waterways and therefore threatening the environments of many fish species. Another result is the soil can no longer hold water, meaning flooding and droughts are both more severe.
The true future of the food revolution will come from the ground up. The key to regenerative agriculture is to build and maintain sustainable soils.
Wrapping Up: Environmental Impact of Veganism
The choices we make every day have a much larger impact that we realize on our interconnected planet.
The choice to support the meat and dairy industries extends far beyond the individual life of the animal that is killed, and has a domino effect on both the surrounding and global environment.
A plant based diet can decrease your individual carbon footprint by 10%, land use by 1/6th and water use by 14,000 litres per day!
See exactly how much you have saved with this calculator.
Even if you do not go vegan, consuming animal products impacts everything from carbon dioxide emissions, methane emissions, deforestation, land and water use.
If everyone were to live with a typical Western diet, we would need more than five planet Earths to sustain our global population.
We only have one planet, so we need to start making choices considering our beautiful mother Earth. Every plant-based meal is a victory for the planet.
This article originally appeared on Health Listed and is republished here with permission.
About the Author
A citizen of the world, ever curious adventurer and environmentalist. Katt Andryskova has spent the last three years learning about veganism, working to protect our oceans and creating educational materials to help everyone live a cleaner, greener life. You can follow her blog on plant-based living and zero-waste strategies at MyVeganExperiment.com and on Instagram at @vegandiverkatt.
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