Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it. –Henry David Thoreau
There are many well-developed ethical reasons to go vegan and it is certainly the case that a decent proportion of those following a plant-based diet do so for moral reasons. There is overlap also with those who choose veganism for health reasons.
Increasingly, though, a growing number of people who eschew meat and other animal products do so because of concern for the environment. And, many of those whose primary reason for being vegan is ethical or health-related still recognise and celebrate the positive implications for the environment their lifestyle has.
The Impact of Humans on the Environment
It is a fact that all humans consume resources and produce waste – some more than others, with those in the so-called developed world being particularly culpable. Almost all humans use a wide variety of goods and services (including making use of some form of energy produced at some stage by fossil fuels). It is almost impossible for humans in the modern world to avoid having a negative effect on the environment. Which is rather bleak and seemingly only just being given serious consideration.
Having said that, there are many things a person can do to reduce the scale of the negative effect they have on the natural world; these could include having fewer or no children, taking public transport or walking instead of driving whenever possible, reducing or stopping taking holidays or business trips by aeroplane, making use of renewal energy sources and, our main focus here, following a plant-based diet.
A 2019 University of Oxford study published in the journal, Science, investigated the environmental impacts of food and suggested that, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use”.
In this article, we will set out the main reasons why becoming a vegan can have a positive effect on the environment, or – more accurately – a less negative effect than a lifestyle that includes the consumption of animal products. We’ll begin with a snapshot view of some of the main environmental benefits of a vegan lifestyle in comparison to one that includes meat consumption, and then briefly look at some counter-arguments.
Environmental Benefits of Veganism
There are many reasons cutting meat, fish and dairy out of your diet and avoiding animal products in general can lessen a person’s impact on the environment. Here are some of the main ones:
While carbon dioxide has long been cited as one of the main culprits of global warming, the methane produced from animal farming is also having a significant effect. Methane might not linger as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide does, but while it is there it is more potent as it absorbs more heat. And, while the flatulence of cows has been touted for excess methane going into the atmosphere, it is actually bovine burping that is the main problem.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in 2017, 9% of the total US greenhouse gas emissions came from the agriculture sector, with a third of that arising from the methane production of livestock. Cows can produce around 100kg of methane per year and there are approximately 1.4 billion farmed cattle in the world… so, that’s a lot of methane being burped into the atmosphere. The excessive quantities of methane produced by the flatulence and burping of cattle, known as “enteric fermentation”, is just a part of the problem, however.
Another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, is also released into the atmosphere as a result of animal farming, both through the breakdown of animal wastes and the large-scale application of nitrogen-based fertilisers to crops used for animal feed.
According to water.org, “844 million people – 1 in 9 – lack access to safe water,” and yet agriculture uses around 70 percent of the global freshwater that is available. The difference in water use between growing (most) vegetables and producing meat is significant too.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “It takes between 1 and 3 tonnes of water to grow 1kg of cereal. A kilogram of beef takes up to 15 tonnes of water to produce”. As we will see later, some fruit and vegetables require a lot more water than others – something those concerned about water usage should be mindful of.
Whilst we obviously need food to eat as well as water to drink, if there are ways we can use less water and still grow food to support a healthy lifestyle, that’s clearly a better situation.
One of the often overlooked environmental impacts of meat production and animal farming is that of pollution. Clearly, the billions of farm animals around the globe produce a hell of a lot of sewage… but with no sewage plants to process animal manure, a large proportion of this is spread over fields as fertiliser, stored in lagoons or even sprayed into the air to be dissipated by the wind (allowing the pathogens and toxins to spread to whomsoever might inhale them).
There is a significant problem of runoff of these pollutants into streams and rivers, and there are reports that groundwater sources could be contaminated as a result of the bacteria and viruses they might contain. Ammonia given off by the manure can also be a source of acid rain, which can lead to further environmental destruction.
Rainforest & Habitat Destruction
The requirement for sufficient grazing land for livestock and cropland use for the production of crops to feed farmed animals represents 30 percent of the ice-free land area of the planet, according to the FAO. The Rain Forest Partnership estimates that between 65 and 70 percent of all Amazon deforestation between 2000 and 2005 was to clear space for pastures for cattle.
This not only massively reduces the biodiversity of the region, but also lessens the planet’s ability to regulate its carbon dioxide levels. In addition, deforestation is linked to increased flooding, poorer quality soil and various other issues, as well.
While it is difficult to quantifiably assess the effect of farming animals on biodiversity, the expansion of pastureland to the detriment of more biodiverse environments has undoubtedly had a negative effect on many species.
Of course, the same could be said of some non-meat farming (see our article on palm oil, for instance). But the combination of water, air and land pollution, land usage changes and its contribution to climate change certainly has negative implications. Many of the estimated million or so animal and plants species currently threatened with extinction (according to the UN) are certainly not being helped by farming in general and animal farming in particular.
Wild animals are being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas where it is hard for them to survive. Moreover, as their habitat is overtaken by farming they are increasingly forced into contact with humans. This is often to the detriment of both humans and animals, though it is invariably the latter that comes off worse.
With a growing population of humans, decreasing food and land security are likely to become increasingly pressing issues in the coming years and decades. With the production of meat generally requiring both more land and more resources (energy and water among others) than the production of non-meat foodstuffs, it is clearly more efficient to focus resources on non-meat food.
This could be especially the case as global warming starts to increase the frequency and severity of climate shocks and extreme weather conditions as this could reduce the amount of land that can be used for farming of any kind (whether to grow crops for humans to consume directly, or for feed or pastures for farmed animals).
Marine Environmental Issues
Commercial fishing can have a devastating effect on marine biodiversity, obliterating coral reefs, inadvertently catching and killing dolphins, sea turtles and other “bycatch”, and reducing fish populations to unsustainable levels. Not to mention the pollution added to the oceans by the diesel-powered trawlers.
Whether fish are caught wild or are farmed, there are environmental issues to consider. Some pescetarians think that farmed fish is sustainable and environmentally sound but farmed seafood requires significant feeding. Much of the feed they are given comes from other fish or even land animals and either way the production of the food has a significant environmental foot print.
Environmental Arguments Against Veganism
We like to offer as much balance as possible at VeganFriendly.org.uk, and it stands to reason that as bad as the meat industry is for the environment, there are many people who have highlighted the environmental implication of arable farming too.
Plant Crops Also Require Land & Resources
Of course many of the environmental arguments against the farming of animals can be levelled, albeit usually to a lesser extent, against arable farming, especially when undertaken on an industrial scale. When it comes to pollution, for instance, the use of chemical fertilisers and indeed organic fertilisers in the form of animal manure have environmental implications. As does the deforestation that has occurred to grow crops, such soybeans (though more of this is used to make animal feed than human food products).
When it comes to water usage, there are few vegan-friendly foods that require anything like the amount of water that the production of beef requires (approximately 15,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef). But some crops have a greater water requirement than others; for instance, it is estimated that 4,400 litres of water is required to produce a kilogram of olives, but just 180 litres of water to produce a kilogram of tomatoes. Here are some other examples of the water requirements of common vegan-friendly foods:
Volume of Water Required to Produce Common Foodstuffs
|Food||Quantity||Water Consumption (Litres)|
|Pasta (dry)||1 kg||1,849|
|Wine||1 x 250ml glass||109|
|Beer||1 x 250ml glass||74|
|Tea||1 x 250 ml cup||27|
Data Source: Institution of Mechanical Engineers, cited by The Guardian
As well as the items listed above, almonds are often cited as being culprits when it comes to water usage. Whilst almonds are a great vegan source of protein and other nutrients, there is no escaping the fact they require a lot of water. The US produces almost half of the world’s almonds and California produces 80% of that. Around 10% of California’s total water usage goes towards almond farming and with the state only just being declared drought-free in 2019 after seven years of hardship, that appears a staggering statistic.
People have spoken about the fact that to grow a single almond takes 4.2 litres of water but this number is heavily disputed. There are lots of complicating factors, including the fact that the trees can also be used for biomass to generate electricity, whilst the industry has made radical improvements in recent years.
However, more important than that, is the simple fact that this still makes an almond less water-intensive than many other vegetables. It is thought that by weight, almonds need around half the water of peas, a third that of lentils and just a quarter of beef. Given their nutritional density, this seems good value and in many ways it does seem almonds have been something of scapegoats in the water debate.
Arable Farming Also Limits Biodiversity
Clearly taking up many thousands of hectares of land that might otherwise be wild meadows or mature forests to grow single crops is not the best way to promote biodiversity. If the crop in question is then sprayed with agrochemicals in the form of pesticides and fertilisers, there is every chance this will have further negative connotations for any surrounding wildlife. There are also suggestions that certain animals who make their home in fields used for crops might get injured or killed by machinary when it comes to harvest time.
The thing is, the production of vegan-friendly crops has to be viewed through the prism of relativity. Arable farming has a far smaller impact on the environment relative to meat farming – not least because meat farming relies on arable farming to provide the majority of the feed given to its animals, thus adding an extra layer of inefficiency before the “end product” is consumed by humans.
Food Miles Count
Lots of the ingredients many people require for a wide range of their favourite vegan recipes are not readily grown in the UK. Whether is the humble lentil from Canada, avocados from Mexico, the aforementioned Californian almond or tofu made from soybeans grown in Brazil, many vegan-friendly foods have inevitably been shipped or flown in from other countries. This clearly has environmental implications when it comes to the carbon footprint of the chickpeas you are crushing into hummus, or the Brazil nuts you are munching to get your daily selenium boost.
It might be true that you could instead feast on a leg of lamb that came from an animal from a farm within 10 miles of where you live. Teamed up with some local potatoes, carrots and greens, the food miles on such a meal would be incredibly low. Things aren’t that simple though, even leaving aside the ethical issues (slaughtering the lamb!).
Much of the meat consumed in the UK comes from abroad and post-Brexit that might increase as the US, Australia, New Zealand and South American countries seek to do more trade with the UK. And, of course, food miles are only one part of the issue. There is every likelihood that, if calculated properly and fully, the environmental impact of a burger that came from a locally-reared cow would be many times greater than any quinoa and falafel salad you might otherwise consume. Once again though, being mindful of the source of your food can help you minimise the food miles associated with it.
Is Veganism Good for the Environment?
It is certainly the case that every human on the planet has an effect on the environment and that it is essentially impossible to completely mitigate this. But it is also true that the choices we make throughout our lives dictate the extent to which our presence affects the world in which we live. While no one can be perfect – or indeed blameless – when it comes to the environment, being aware of the implications of our choices, and changing our behaviour accordingly can at least help us sleep a little easier.
Note that there are no black and white answers when it comes to addressing the hugely complex systems that affect the geological and biological systems that affect the environment. In all likelihood, it will be the decisions taken at inter-governmental levels that will really decide the fate of our planet. But the more people who at least try to move in a positive environmental direction, and the more people who lobby their elected representatives to do likewise, the better. And, of course, whilst we can sometimes feel small and insignificant as individuals, when the actions of millions of people are added together, their impact can be huge.
More and more people are going vegan, whilst others are either switching to vegetarianism or eating less meat. There is no real doubt that eating plants rather than meat is better when it comes to the issue of climate change. Per calorie, plants require less land, less water, cause less deforestation and produce smaller amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. You might feel that your decision to go vegan is only a small drop in the ocean but many drops make an ocean and switching to a plant-based diet may well be a bigger drop than you think.
Overall, the most effective way to minimise the environmental impact of the food you eat is to grow your own veganic veg, which uses only vegan-friendly fertilisers and reduces the food miles to zero. The more people who can be encouraged to go vegan and indeed grow vegan, the better it will be for the environment. So, with sound ethical, health and environmental reasons to make the change, what are you waiting for?