Climate experts warn that if we don’t change our current pattern of consumption, we will continue to see the devastating effects of climate change. Earth is already experiencing the hottest temperatures in recorded history, rapidly melting ice sheets, extreme drought and wildfires, increasingly powerful hurricanes and tropical storms, as well as extreme flooding. While governments and corporations can be slow to change, there is much we can do right now to reduce our carbon footprint. Switching to energy-efficient appliances, supporting solar and wind energy, driving/flying less and voting for politicians with strong climate agendas are all good changes, but one of the best things we can do right now is change our diet.
There’s a growing awareness of how our diet impacts the environment. This is in response to a growing amount of research showing that diets rich in meat and dairy are far less sustainable compared to diets centered on plants. The environmental benefits of a plant-based diet are so convincing that virtually all major environmental groups are now promoting plant-based diets, including Greenpeace International, United Nations Environment Program, World Wildlife Fund and the Sierra Club.1-4
Why exactly is a plant-based diet better for the environment? It largely comes down to the fact that breeding and raising billions of animals for human consumption requires far more resources and produces far more emissions and waste compared to growing plants directly for human consumption. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.
- Greenhouse gas emissions: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that livestock account for 14-18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.5-6 Other researchers estimate this number to be much higher, possibly around 50%.7 Either way, these amounts are greater than the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the entire global transportation sector. In other words, cows, pigs and chickens create more greenhouse gasses than all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles. If everyone shifted to a plant-based diet we could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 49%.8
- Land use: Agriculture uses 50% of earth’s habitable land. Of that, 77% is used for meat and dairy production, whereas only 23% is used to grow plants for human consumption.9 Despite this, meat and dairy only account for 18% of global calories produced and 37% of global protein produced. Growing plants directly for human consumption is simply more resource efficient in that we get more calories/protein using less land. This is important because animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation worldwide.5 If we all shifted to a plant-based diet, we would reduce agriculture land use by 75%.8 The land no longer needed for animal agriculture could then be restored back to native habitat, which would help preserve biodiversity, reduce habitat loss of wild species, and remove an extra 8.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the following 100 years.8
- Water use: It is estimated that animal agriculture accounts for 27% of global water use.10 And on average, producing one calorie of animal products (meat, eggs, dairy, fish) requires five times more water than producing one calorie of plants (beans, grains, fruits, veggies).10 In fact, it takes 5,000 gallons of water just to produce a pound of beef and roughly 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of cow’s milk.11-12 Switching to a plant-based diet would reduce scarcity-weighted freshwater withdrawals by 19%, which would preserve freshwater for human consumption.8
- Waste production: Roughly 10 billion land animals are raised for meat, eggs and dairy in the U.S. alone. The USDA estimates that these animals produce 450 million tons of manure each year—three times more waste than the entire U.S. human population.13 All of this waste pollutes land, water and air leading to contaminated waterways, ocean dead zones and local air-quality issues.
- Ocean health: The FAO estimates that 77% of ocean fish stocks are fully exploited or worse.14 This is due to overfishing—removing fish species from the ocean faster than they can reproduce and maintain their population. Although some fish species may be labeled as “sustainable,” this has more to do with marketing than actual fish populations. As Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson states, “There is no such thing as sustainable seafood in a dying ocean.”
Realizing the massive burden animal agriculture places on the environment, many people have turned to animal products labeled as “organic,” “grass fed” or “sustainably raised.” This is classic greenwashing. Research suggests these animal products are no better for the environment than traditionally produced options.15-16 Another common diet recommendation is to eat local. Yet on average, for food, transportation only accounts for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, if you only ate local but kept eating meat and dairy, you would only reduce your environmental burden by a maximum of 5%. This is why the best way to “eat green” is to eat fewer animals and more plants, regardless of where these products were produced. That being said, buying local, plant-based food is a great way to support our local economy and reduce our environmental burden.
In 2019, 37 of the world’s leading scientists published the EAT-Lancet Report and Planetary Health Diet.18 The report encourages a global shift away from animal products toward a more plant-based diet for the sake of our environment, human health and in order to feed our growing population. Although some populations throughout the world rely on animal products as an essential part of their diet, most people in developed countries do not. When we go to the grocery store, we can choose beans instead of beef, plant-based milks instead of cow’s milk, and fill our cart with a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Doing so is not only better for our health but also the health of our planet.