Go Green - 5 Reasons Why Plant-Based Diets Are Good for the Environment
Updated: Jun 27
In 2021, the World Economic Forum named the meat industry as one of the largest threats to environmental sustainability. Several studies have shown that shifting to a vegan, or plant-based diet is the most effective change an individual can make to reduce their impact on the planet.
Here are five evidence-based reasons why eating a plant-based diet is one of the strongest weapons in the fight against climate change.
Plant-based diets reduce carbon emissions
Animal agriculture is one of the most significant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, livestock production generates nearly double the emissions of plant-based foods.
Raising livestock is extremely resource intensive. Livestock like cows need acres and acres of land to graze. In some parts of the world, farmers clear forests to make room for soy and corn crops that are intended only for livestock consumption. This is causing rapid deforestation in regions of the world like the Amazon, a biodiversity hotspot. Some 41% of deforestation is driven entirely by beef production.
The meat industry also requires additional logistics and transportation. Farmers transport the animals to the slaughterhouse. From there, the meat products are shipped out worldwide. This adds oil and gas emissions to the livestock production process.
Cattle farming is especially detrimental to the environment. As a result of increased demand for beef, the number of cows has grown to more than 1 billion. Cows produce and release methane gas, which contributes to climate change. In total, producing 1 kilogram of beef generates 28 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a kilogram of wheat.
Plant-based diets protect biodiversity
In the 2021 report Food System Impacts On Biodiversity Loss, the United Nations reported that agriculture is responsible for endangering nearly 90% of the species facing extinction.
Scaling livestock production to meet the growing demand for meat has caused farmers to use unsustainable agriculture methods. When farmers overproduce animal feed, such as corn and soy, it degrades nutrients in the soil. Farmers also remove other types of plant life when they clear wild areas for crops to feed livestock. When the plants in these wild areas disappear, the animals that rely on them soon follow.
Replacing meat with vegan staples such as soy and wheat can help reduce deforestation. Though completely vegan diets have the lowest environmental impact, just reducing the meat in your diet could go a long way toward protecting biodiversity.
Lower meat consumption means less waste
One of the largest environmental costs of the meat industry is byproduct waste. More than half of every animal is not suitable for consumption. Each year, slaughterhouses produce more than 1 billion tons of this inedible waste.
Animals themselves also produce waste in the form of manure. Livestock waste is highly concentrated, containing much more nitrogen and phosphorus than human sewage. Treating agricultural wastewater is a fuel-intensive process and produces additional emissions. In addition, the nitrogen and phosphorus in these waste streams can leach into creeks, rivers, and waterways, causing algal blooms that kill fish by using up the oxygen in the water.
Manure also releases several types of pollutants into the air. When combined with the pollutants emitted by trucks, other equipment, and factories in our food supply chain, the meat industry is responsible for more than 15,000 air pollution-related deaths per year.
Livestock production requires lots of water
Nearly all of the world’s water usage is applied to food production. Water usage has increased in tandem with the meat industry. Since the 1970s, the industry’s freshwater usage has tripled.
Beef is one of the most-water intensive foods. Creating a single hamburger requires more than 650 gallons of water during the production process. Other animal-derived foods, such as eggs and pork consume between 50 and 135 gallons of water.
Plant-based meals have a much smaller water footprint. One salad requires less than half the water volume it takes to produce a single egg.
Reducing seafood consumption prevents overfishing
Unsustainable demands for seafood have also resulted in environmental problems that rival those caused by land-based agriculture. For example, large fishing operations drag heavy nets across the ocean floor. Besides destroying marine habitats, this disturb caches of carbon dioxide stored at the sea bottom. This activity alone is responsible for 2% of yearly carbon emissions.
Fishing boats also consume large quantities of fuel as they trawl the oceans for seafood. Some types of fishing boats can consume more than 10,000 liters of fuel in a single expedition. When fish populations dwindle due to overfishing, boats must spend more time at sea. This results in higher fuel consumption, and additional greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere.
Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet helps to reduce demand for seafood, which in turn reduces fishing activity. This gives fish populations time to recover and stabilize.
Plant-based foods are the way to go
While the most environmentally friendly diet is probably a vegan one, anyone can do their part to eat more sustainably. For example, if you eat meat every day, pick a day to go meatless and eat vegetarian. Every little bit helps!