When vegannism is mentioned, we often conjure up images of animal activists and Instagram-worthy green smoothies. However, can eating our vegetables help reduce our ecological footprint? Simply put, yes—a widespread plant-based diet has incredible transformative potential in improving the environment due to the significant slash in resources necessary to produce vegan food.
An omnivorous diet can have dangerous side effects that are often overlooked or minimized when discussing methods to become more sustainable. For example, while non-organic trash litters the ocean and disrupts species diversity, animal agriculture is actually the leading cause of ocean dead zones. Moving to a diet that excludes animal products would eliminate eutrophication by 49%, caused by the millions of tons of pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, and animal waste running off into coastal areas. In another example, just as temperatures have been rising, so has the concern for global warming. Though not often discussed, animal agricultural practices produce extremely noxious greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. Indeed, a recent Oxford University study estimated a vegan world would produce 49% less food-based greenhouse gas emissions, making more of an impact than a transportation-free world.
The most important aspect of this debate looks to what is involved in producing food for an omnivorous and a plant-based diet. An omnivorous diet consumes significantly more fossil fuels, land, water, and food to support.
A staggering 30% of the Earth’s entire landmass is currently being used to grow feed crops and to graze livestock. Furthermore, with a growing population, that landmass is continuously growing, contributing to 91% of Amazon Rainforest destruction today. In fact, so much plant food is being directed towards livestock that world hunger has the potential to be eradicated with world veganism, as farmers are currently growing enough food for nearly 11 billion people.
Next, of all foods, meat requires the most water to produce. Producing animal products pollutes and requires enormous amounts of water, particularly to cultivate feed crops. In fact, John Robbins, author of the 1987Diet for a New America—an exposé on connections between diet, health, animal cruelty, and environmentalism—explainsthat nearly half of all water used in the United States goes to raising livestock. Of course, no lifestyle is completely sustainable, but producing a day’s worth of food for a vegan takes only 300 gallons of water while a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet requires 1,200 gallons, and over 4,000 for a meat-eater’s diet.
Evidently, reducing our animal product consumption can help significantly improve our environment. However, many would rightfully ask whether going fully vegan would be hypocritical, compromising our health for the health of the environment. Obtaining important nutrients such as protein is a concern when beginning a plant-based diet, so is it really worth it for the environment? The truth is, even considering protein—which may be more difficult to obtain on a vegan lifestyle—much fewer resources are necessary to support a plant-based diet. For example, Joseph Poore from Oxford University explored that even by replacing meat-derived protein with the equivalent from plant crops, we would reduce agricultural land use by 76%– a whole 3.1 billion hectares. As for most other nutrients, we all know that vitamins and antioxidants are most abundantly found in plant foods.
We need not look at a worldwide-scale either. Any reduction in animal products, whether skipping red meat for dinner or switching to completely plant-based meals, helps reduce one’s overall ecological footprint. In a day, just one person following a plant-based diet saves thousands of gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forest, 10 pounds of carbon dioxide, and more. The vegan diet is oversimplified in terms of nutrition. Let us remember that we have always been told to eat our vegetables. However simple, it is clear that the impact a vegan diet has on the environment is something to be considered for the health and wellbeing of our Earth and future generations to come.