Benefits of a Plant-based Diet Part 2: Environmental Impact
by Madison Cavallaro
The production of meat and dairy has a detrimental impact on the environment. In fact, just one hamburger uses enough fuel to travel 20 miles (1). Primarily all crop production uses water, land, air, and fossil fuels. Raising animals for food is indeed mainly responsible for most of the environmental impact of agriculture. In the U.S., almost half of the water used goes towards raising animals for food, 80% of ammonia emissions come from animal waste, and 80% of agricultural land is used explicitly for raising animals for food and growing grain for feed (1). This hugely affects Climate change; Livestock is responsible for 65% of Nitrous Oxide emissions and about 40% of Methane emissions globally (1). As if this wasn't enough, overfishing is emptying our oceans. The continued expansion of agriculture leads to deforestation, despite the fact the U.S. wastes 30-40% of its food supply (2). Now that I started with the bad, let's move onto the good.
If it wasn't apparent prior, plant-based foods significantly reduce emissions. In fact, compared to a standard diet, vegans have the lowest carbon footprint, contributing 41% fewer greenhouse gases. If we'd like to compare vegan and plant-based eaters to meat-eaters (surely would), vegans also generate 7.4 fewer pounds of CO2 per person each day (3). The more individuals that eat plant-based, the less carbon and methane emissions and overuse of water. Furthermore, every year vegetarians and vegans save around 404 animals each (4). Pause for a feel-good moment.
Even if you aren't fully committed to being a vegan or vegetarian, diets rich in plant products and organic produce positively affect diet-related environmental impacts (3).
The Grey Areas of Agriculture
It is worth noting that there are still other threats to the environment when eating plant-based. Many food items are produced with palm oil, a considerable threat to biodiversity and responsible for excessive deforestation. Acres of land in the rainforest and areas of Indonesia and Malaysia are devoted to growing palm oil. Removing forests for these farms releases carbon into the atmosphere, allows rain to destroy nutrient-rich soil, and endangers many species in these areas (5). This issue exists whether you eat vegan or not because it is heavily used in food items, especially packaged snacks.
Another important condition to mention for plant-based eating is some crops require more water than others, and by more, I mean a lot. Almond, a popular nut used as a milk substitute, requires 1 gallon of water to grow one almond. For 1 pound, 1,900 gallons (6). Similarly, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, and pistachios use comparable amounts of water. Nuts are a great source of protein and are used in significant quantities by vegans and vegetarians alike to craft delicious meals. But, to produce around 2 pounds of soybean, another plant-based protein, takes about 237 gallons of water (7). This is a significant difference, and many other plant-based crops require even less water. This includes several types of beans, cucumbers, eggplants, herbs, squash, tomato, and more (8).
Regardless, eating vegan is the single most effective way to reduce your own carbon footprint. To put it in perspective, making 1 beef hamburger uses enough water for 30, 5-minute showers (9). If you are concerned with your carbon footprint and thinking of getting an electric car, I might suggest cutting off the meat industry in your life. All jokes and light-heartedness aside, plant-based eating does some seriously remarkable things for the planet. Whether or not you have the opportunity to go vegan or plant-based, it is essential to keep in mind that you are one piece of the biggest puzzle. For climate change to be stopped, we need big corporations to find more sustainable agriculture models instead of incentivizing consumer blame.
Meet our Contributor
Madison is an Eating Disorder Consoler in Los Angeles. She graduated from Emmanuel College and Northeastern University in Boston with a B.S. and M.S. and specializes in health science and nutrition. Throughout her career, she has aspired to impact the nutrition field in a positive way. With her background and interest in sustainability, health, and wellness, she aims to address limitations in health by making these top