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Veganism and Climate Change: Environmental Reasons to Go Plant-Based

If there was a miracle cure that could help prevent many common health issues, end animal suffering and mitigate climate change, would you want to know about it? This urgently needed solution for today’s main challenges is a PLANT-BASED DIET.

We could stop here. That’s it.
But of course, we also want to explain to you, based on scientific studies and reviews, why and how a plant-based diet is the solution for so many problems at one time!

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In this article, we explain why veganism and climate change are two inseparable concepts.
For more benefits of a plant-based diet check out these articles:

To whom we address this blog post:
In the following, we talk especially to people from nations that boast an abundance of dietary options. We do also address middle-income countries, which are unfortunately largely affected by the standard western diet, including fast food. However, NOT included are people who suffer severe food shortages and are forced to eat whatever is available.

Livestock and climate change

“The mass consumption of animals is a primary reason why humans are hungryfat, or sick and is a leading cause of the depletion and pollution of waterways, the degradation and deforestation of the land, the extinction of species, and the warming of the planet.” (1)

According to a high scientific consensus, we are facing a climate crisis!

Still, most people (including us until 2019!) live a lifestyle, which requires far more resources than what would be sustainable. Thereby the nutrition is one of the single biggest lifestyle factors affecting climate change!

In fact, agriculture is one of the critical human activities that impact our climate and ecosystems. (2) Here are some facts you may not know!

Land use of agriculture

  • The livestock sector is one of the key drivers of land-use change. (3)
  • Today’s livestock is occupying around 30% of the planet’s ice-free land, which makes up 70% of all agricultural land (4)
  • 33% of croplands are used for livestock feed production. (3)
  • Each year, 13 billion hectares of forest area are lost due to land conversion for agricultural uses (3)
  • 20% of the world’s grasslands are degraded with an increasing trend, mainly due to intensified animal density per area. (3)
  • Beyond emissions, today’s livestock is the single largest anthropogenic user of land. (4)
  • For example, 100g of tofu requires 74 times less land use compared to 100g of beef! (5)

Water usage of agriculture

  • The water footprint of soy milk is only 28% of the global average cow milk. (6)
  • A soy burger’s water footprint is only 7% of the water footprint of an average beef burger. (6)
  • The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value. (7)
  • Finally, 29% of the total water footprint of the agricultural sector in the world is related to the production of animal products (7)
  • Moreover, beef cattle causes 33% of the global water footprint of animal production (7)
  • Organically produced soy products may need less water than conventionally produced soy products. (6)

In conclusion, the reduction in meat intake (especially beef) has the most significant impact on the Water Footprint reduction. (8) E.g., one beef steak 3500 liters, one beef burger patty requires 2626 liters of water, one liter of milk about 1000 liters, and one egg 200 liters, whereas a baked potato requires 108 liters. (9)

graphic of the water footprint in liters per person per day in different countries
Water Footprint of consumption –liters per day per person (16)

Energy use/ CO² emissions of agriculture

  • Livestock and their byproducts account for 51% of all anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas emissions (11) Other numbers are based on data from many years ago (like the estimated 18% of “Livestock’s Long Shadow” of FAO) or are neglecting the disposal of livestock waste and the more intense cooling of animal products.
  • An average of 25 kcal of fossil energy is required to produce 1 kcal of animal protein, which is 10 x greater than in the case of plant protein (12)
  • Emission intensities are highest for beef with almost 300 kg CO2-eq per kilogram of protein produced. (13)
  • Cattle are the animal species responsible for the most emissions, representing about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions. (13)
Regional distribution of emissions from livestock
Regional distribution of emissions from livestock Source fao.org (14)

 To sum up the facts

It requires far more water, energy, and land to raise livestock compared to growing plants. This makes the production of animal foods for human consumption a grossly inefficient process.

The plant-based solution

The scientific evidence is clear: higher consumption of animal-based foods is associated with the highest environmental impacts. In contrast, increased consumption of plant-based foods is associated with the lowest environmental impact. (5, 15,16 ,17, 18, 19, 20)

Thus, plant foods generally have a significantly lower environmental impact and are implicated with far less water, land, and energy use compared to animal agriculture. (5, 19, 20)

Indeed, even the least sustainable plant food is still significantly more sustainable than the best environmentally performing animal food. (5)

Environmental-effects-per-serving-of-food-produced-the-lancet-EAT-repor
Environmental effects per serving of food produced The Lancet EAT Report (18)

 Globally, there is enough cropland to feed 9 billion people in 2050! But only if the 40% of all crops produced today for feeding animals were used directly for human consumption. (3)

In conclusion, the simple environmental truth is that we have to eat less meat – far less – and make a change towards a plant-based diet!

Is it really this easy?
Yes, it is!

destruction of the environment

Extinction of the marine life

Overfishing

It’s not a secret that the oceans are already nearly completely exploited, hence life in the sea is threatened with extinction. To be more specific: more than 80% of fisheries are already overfished or collapsing. (21)

Fish from aquaculture namely is fed with fish from the ocean in the form of fishmeal, fish oil, plants, and animal trimmings. About 6 million metric tons of pelagic fish are harvested every year. An additional 2 million tons (only 30%) is generated from the scraps produced when fish are processed for human consumption. (22)

The volume of global fish production amounted to 178.8 million metric tons in 2018, up from 148.1 million metric tons in 2010. (23) In other words, this makes up nearly 490.000 tons each day!
No way… however, it’s true!

Fishing nets with bycatch on ship deck
Fishing nets with bycatch

Destruction of the ocean ground

Bottom-trawling is a commercial way of fishing species like shrimp, grouper, and scallop. Thereby huge nets are pulled over the seafloor. Scientists say that the destruction caused by bottom-trawling is similar to that caused by clear-cutting old forests, only on a far grander scale.

When first developed, bottom-trawling nets were limited to parts of the ocean that had a soft sediment floor because rocks and coral tore holes in the netting, allowing fish to escape. Nowadays, they have huge wheels, chains, or metal doors along their bottom edges. The heavy metal scrapes along the ocean floor and keeps the nets just off the bottom to prevent them from being torn.

Plastic pollution caused by Fishing

However, the problem lies not only in the overfishing and extinction of many species, but it’s also about the immense cause of plastic pollution through fishing nets.

Scientists found that at least 46% of the plastic of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” comes from fishing nets. (21) Overall, an estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is left in our oceans each year! (24)

Lost fishing gear pollutes the oceans and therefore is part of our food chain.

We eat what the animals have eaten before.

Say what?!

Food for thought:

Would you really want to eat a whole bunch of microplastic with your fish or shrimp?

What can we do?

Ahead of the expected population growth, our planet is going to be subjected to, we need to produce more food than ever before. But to prevent a global climate collapse, a production with drastically fewer emissions than right now is indispensable! (25)

Animal foods are significantly more resource-intensive (per calorie and gram of protein) than plant foods. (26, 27, 5) Therefore, the cheapest, fastest, and most effective action that can be taken at a global scale to mitigate climate change is a dietary shift towards consuming more plant-based foods and less meat in particular and other animal-based foods. (28 ,29,30,31)

Summary

In short, we will list the 4 most important environmental reasons to make a shift towards a plant-based diet:

  • animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of global warming
  • energy and water usage for animal products is way higher than for plant-based foods
  • food production of animal products is the primary cause of deforestation
  • oceans are hugely overfished and polluted with chemicals and microplastic

At the end of the day, a well-planned whole-foods plant-based diet is not only a great option in nutritional regards – but it can also yield meaningful benefits to our planetary health at a time in which climate change threatens the persistence of our and many other species. (32)

A plant-based diet, with the highest amount of local and seasonal ingredients possible, is the most climate- and environmentally-friendly diet!

Read the other blog-posts about reasons to go plant-based:

  • Veganism and animal welfare: reasons to go plant-based
  • Veganism and health: science-based health benefits of a plant-based diet

Further information:

References

(1) Henning B. Standing in Livestock’s ‘“Long Shadow”’: The Ethics of Eating Meat on a Small Planet. Ethics & the Environment 2011; 16: 63–93.
(2)Vanwalleghem T, Gómez JA, Infante Amate J, et al. Impact of historical land use and soil management change on soil erosion and agricultural sustainability during the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 2017; 17: 13–29.
(3) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Sustainability Pathways: Livestock and Landscapes
(4) Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar TD, et al. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Food & Agriculture Org., 2006.
(5) Poore J, Nemecek T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 2018; 360: 987–992.
(6) Ercin, A.E., Aldaya, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012) The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products, Ecological Indicators, 18: 392−402.
(7) Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012) A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products, Ecosystems, 15(3):401-405.
(8) Vanham, D., Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2013) The water footprint of the EU for different diets, Ecological Indicators, 32: 1-8.
(9) Waterfootprint.org multimedia hub
(10) waterfootprint.org water footprint aquapath
(11) Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key factors in climate change are cows, pigs, and chickens?” Worldwatch 22(6):10-19. Nov/Dec 2009.)
(12) Pimentel D and Pimentel M H 2008Food, Energy, and Society3rd edn (Boca Raton, FL: CRCPress)
(13) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Key facts and findings
(14) Food and agriculture organization of the United Nations, Livestock & climate change
(15) Godfray HCJ, Aveyard P, Garnett T, et al. Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Science; 361. Epub ahead of print 20 July 2018. DOI: 10.1126/science.aam5324.
(16) Heller MC, Keoleian GA. Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimates of U.S. Dietary Choices and Food Loss: GHG Emissions of U.S. Dietary Choices and Food Loss. J Ind Ecol 2015; 19: 391–401.
(17) de Vries M, de Boer IJM. Comparing environmental impacts for livestock products: A review of life cycle assessments. Livest Sci 2010; 128: 1–11.
(18) Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Willett, Walter et al. The Lancet, Volume 393, Issue 10170, 447 – 492
(19) Norja HR, Kurppa S, Helenius J. Dietary choices and greenhouse gas emissions – assessment of impact of vegetarian and organic options at national scale. Progress in Industrial Ecology, An International Journal 2009; 6: 340.
(20) Scarborough P, Appleby PN, Mizdrak A, et al. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Clim Change 2014; 125: 179–192.
(21) Sea Legacy  website
(22) NOAA Fisheries. Feeds for Aquaculture (2018)
(23) STATISTA Global fish production from 2002 to 2018
(24) World Animal Protection (2014), Fishing’s phantommenace How ghost fishing gear is endangering our sea life
(25) Food Climate Research Network, Expert commentary by Prof. Johan Rockström
(26) Sakadevan K, Nguyen M-L. Chapter Four – Livestock Production and Its Impact on Nutrient Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. In: Sparks DL (ed) Advances in Agronomy. Academic Press, 2017, pp. 147–184.
(27) Davis KF, Yu K, Herrero M, et al. Historical trade-offs of livestock’s environmental impacts. Environmentalisthttps://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/125013/pdf (2015).
(28) Raphaely T, Marinova D. Flexitarianism: Decarbonising through flexible vegetarianism. Renewable Energy 2014; 67: 90–96.
(29) Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 2019; 393: 447–492.
(30) Cleveland DA, Gee Q. 9 – Plant-Based Diets for Mitigating Climate Change. In: Mariotti F (ed) Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets in Health and Disease Prevention. Academic Press, 2017, pp. 135–156.
(31) Ron AMD, De Ron AM, Sparvoli F, et al. Editorial: Protein Crops: Food and Feed for the Future. Frontiers in Plant Science; 8. Epub ahead of print 2017. DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2017.00105.
(32) Springmann M, Wiebe K, Mason-D’Croz D, et al. Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts: a global modelling analysis with country-level detail. Lancet Planet Health. 2018; 2: e451-e461

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