We often hear how eating a vegan diet could be the single biggest way to reduce our impact on the Environment.
But let’s be honest: Veganism has long been associated to tree-huggers, hippie pacifists (with no offence to either of them) and very often disregarded as a tasteless boring diet that’s too difficult to stick to.
Things have changed greatly in the past 5 years, with more and more options stocked on supermarket’s shelves and vegan alternatives offered in restaurants and food-chains around the world and, if you decide to give them a try, you’ll be surprise of how much they can resemble the “real” food you’re used to eat.
But why exactly eating Vegan would be good for the Planet? And is Veganism always the better choice?
In this blog we are going to talk about the positive and negative aspects of eating no animal-derived foods.
Already ten years ago the UN has released a report calling for a global shift towards a vegan diet to be able to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts on climate change.
Even the efficiency gains in agriculture will be overwhelmed by the expected population growth, especially if the developing emerging market will follow the Western World’s model of a heavily meat-focused diet.
Food production would have to grow by 70% by 2050 and greenhouse emissions would follow with a 73% increase too.
Researchers at Oxford University and the Swiss agricultural research institute, Agroscope, discovered that cutting meat and dairy products could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73% and if everyone stopped eating these foods, an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined would be freed from farmland.
The study, published by Science in 2018, analyses about 38,000 different farms to find out the best ways to reduce food’s environmental impacts and research which tools and methods producers can apply to reduce their environmental impact.
Most strikingly, the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change to reduce the amount of meat and dairy products consumed.
But a vegan diet doesn’t only reduce greenhouse emissions considerably. The environmental impact of modern agriculture has been explored in documentaries like Cowspiracy, Before The Flood, and Earthlings and here there’s a list of all the other good reasons why you should consider the change now.
More food for everyone
The global population is expected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050 and there's simply not enough land on the planet to raise enough meat to feed everyone the Western diet.
83% of farmland is currently devoted to raise animals and 700 million tons of food that could go to humans is instead used to feed livestock every year. 36% of the calories produced by the world's crops are being used for animal feeding, while only 12% of those feed calories end up contributing to the human diet so it would be more practical and calorie-efficient to use our planet’s resources for crops that feed humans, directly.
If we convert most of the farmland into crops to feed humas, many more people could be fed worldwide, with a greater variety of plant-based alternatives at an even lower cost due to higher supply.
More clean water and air
It takes 100 to 200 times more water to raise a pound of beef than it does to raise a pound of plant foods. Cutting down one kilo of beef would save the planet 15,000 litres of water, a roasted chicken 4,325 litres and going entirely vegan could save over 760,000 litres of water a year.
Animal agriculture is sadly taking the lead in waterways pollution. Going vegan won’t eliminate the problem entirely, as fertilizers will continued to be used in many crops fields, but it will eliminate the great amount of animal waste, hormones, and antibiotics currently polluting our waterways.
Converting farmland into growing plant foods will allow to give access to fresh and clean water to hundreds of millions more people around the world.
When animal waste is broken down, it also produces nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2 in its warming effect. Between carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide the animal agriculture industry causes more air pollution that all the modes of transportation in the world combined while growing crops and plants will purify the air instead and reduce Carbon Dioxide levels.
Less soil erosion
Raising livestock unfortunately contributes greatly to soil erosion and deforestation, often made necessary to make room for the livestock to roam, which also accelerate climate change and wildlife extinction.
Soil erosion, compaction, nutrient imbalance, pollution, acidification, water logging, loss of soil biodiversity and increasing salinity have been affecting soil across the globe, reducing its ability to support plant life and so grow crops. (Why soil is disappearing from farms, by Richard Gray). Crops would require far less water, would absorb more carbon dioxide and produce more oxygen than raising livestock.
Overfishing has cut the total fish population in half in only 50 years and has thrown the entire marine eco-system and biodiversity out of balance.
Overfishing certain species of fish has changed the characteristic of the remaining fish population with a domino effect on the oceans’ food chain.
Tuna and mackerel in particular are currently at the verge of extinction and fish caught by trawling, can have three times the emissions of fish caught by traditional methods.
Reducing the demand for fish worldwide will allow the marine life to thrive again.
Eating Vegan doesn’t necessarily equal eating healthy. But it will force you experiment cooking yourself with veggies and fresh ingredients and to actually read the labels of processed food and realise the amount of preservatives, chemicals, added sugars and sweeteners that can cause harm to your health.
“Empty calories” coming from sugar, fat, oils and alcohol, now account for almost 40 percent of food purchased in the world’s 15 wealthiest countries, according to a research published on Nature.
The study also compared health impacts of the global omnivorous diet with traditional Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian diets. Adopting these alternative diets could reduce incidence of type II diabetes by about 25 percent, cancer by about 10 percent and death from heart disease by about 20 percent.
The World Health Organization has too released a report further outlining the increased risks of colorectal cancer from regular red meat and processed meat consumption, which has also been linked to heart disease, stroke, and other health complications.
A vegan diet can supply you with all the nutrients you need because fresh vegetables, fruits, beans etc. (especially if organic) are dense of nutrient that get otherwise lost in processed food and are not provided by eating a mainly carnivore diet.
Being informed makes you more powerful to choose what you are putting in your body and who wants to poison themselves with something that is the opposite of what the Nature wants to supply us with?
A more ethical choice
Nonhuman animals are routinely killed and made to suffer in farms and slaughterhouses. This happens because there is a demand for animal products, especially food. Veganism means not consuming these products, so animals are not harmed to produce them.
All vegans adhere to a plant-based diet, but does that mean someone who follows a plant-based diet necessarily a vegan? Some ethical vegans will say no.
But if you’re against suffering and you agree animals can feel pain, it’s pretty hard to justify eating them and force them to live a painful life in factory farms.
So there is no doubt that going Vegan will help you keeping your environmental footprint as light as possible but you might want to consider that some plant-based food could have unintended environmental consequences.
It is indeed very important to consider where and how your food has been grown, how it has been transported and processed before it arrives on your plate.
Eating food out of season, which has been airlifted from the other side of the world and grown with plenty of fertilisers is indeed not as good in helping the planet than choosing in season km 0 food, grown organically respecting the environment and not in greenhouses.
Even if the “greenest” sources of meat still produce more greenhouse gases than plant-based proteins, there are some plant-based food which have a disproportionate impact on the environment:
Avocado & Mangoes
Avocado tree’s roots are very shallow and need continuous irrigation during hot months, making avocados one of the worst food when it comes to water consumption.
It has been estimated that each avocado requires between 140 and 270 litres of water to grow and a single mature tree about 210 litre every day during Summer.
Similarly, one kilo of mangoes requires 686 litres of water to grow.
This has put a great pressure on the local communities, often left without clean water due to illegal extraction form the rivers.
After harvesting, avocado and mangoes are often bathed in hot water to kill any possible insect infestation and then airfreighted to Europe and the US, adding up to their CO2 emissions.
An excellent substitute for many meat-less dishes, mushroom can have a surprising impact on the environment if we consider they flourish without light and feed from rotten organic waste.
Most of the emissions in this case come from the energy needed to keep the rooms where mushrooms are cultivated warm.
Mushroom also emit carbon dioxide and some of them require level of CO2 concentration to grow that are 48 times higher than the outside air.
There is also a debate on the use of peat in the organic compost necessary for mushrooms to grow and the damage this can do to the bog ecosystem if it’s not extracted sustainably.
Cocoa is also a major driver of tropical deforestation and one of the biggest contributors to global biodiversity loss after beef, pork, and poultry meat. It is estimated that of tropical forests were lost to cocoa plantations between 1988 and 2008.
What concerns most is that the deforestation happening for cocoa is primarily in sensitive biodiversity hotspots such as the rainforests of the Amazon, West Africa and South East Asia so it’s very important to educate yourself on the food chain behind your favourite chocolate bar.
Almonds and cashew nuts
Cashes, almonds and walnuts are some of the most water-intensive crops grown on the planet. They consume 4,134 litres of water for every kg of shelled nuts produced.
Almonds especially need comparatively large amounts of water, pesticide and fertiliser making them also the worst milk alternative drink.
According to the WWF, soy is the second largest agricultural driver of deforestation worldwide after beef and the vast majority of soya is grown for the meat and dairy industry while only 6% of the world’s soya is eaten directly by humans.
Palm oil is often grown irresponsibly causing huge deforestation and pushed the orangutan towards extinction. Greenpeace claims an area of forest the size of a football pitch is being lost in Indonesia every 25 seconds to palm oil farmers.
Luckily, a growing number of brands have now pledged to produce more sustainable palm oil.
There is no way that, suddenly, we all become vegan, but we hope that by reading this blog and how much your food choices have an impact on the Environment, you will consider introducing small changes in your diet, swapping here and there meat and dairy for their vegan substitute and experimenting with new plant-based flavours.
If we all make a vow to eat less animal-derived food, we will make a bigger impact than only a handful of us turning 100% Vegan. Allow yourself some slip ups and don’t strive to be perfect from day 1, you’ll see your diet slightly but steadily changing until one day you’ll hardly crave any meat or cheese at all!