For a while now, the vegan and vegetarian movements have been on the rise-- you may have noticed vegan restaurants are popping up near you, and the meatless “meat” section of Whole Foods is ever-expanding.
So what’s fueling this trend?
A lot of veggie rhetoric focuses on health concerns or animal cruelty, but more and more people are starting to talk about the environmental impacts of the food they put on their plates. Today I wanted to explore some of the ways that animal products impact the Earth, and then chat about potential solutions for veggie lovers as well as those who are a little hesitant to commit to the tofu lifestyle.
One concern surrounding human population growth and food is a question of space- where can we fit all these people and their food? Interestingly enough, meat plays a huge role in this equation. Not only do livestock need lots of space to live, they need to eat a lot-- right now, US livestock consumes more than 7 times as much grain as the entire American population. The documentary Cowspiracy presents another statistic to make you think about land use: feeding a meat eater for one year requires 1.125 acres of land. This is 18x as much land as a vegan! (from EarthSave and Cowspiracy).
From an efficiency standpoint, the results are clear: according to the WRI, beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per gram of edible protein compared with plant proteins. This graphic shows similar trends; take a look at the difference in land use, water usage, and emissions from animal-based foods on the right vs. plant-based foods to the left:
As you can see, animal agriculture is not only land-heavy but also incredibly water dependent. According to the WRI, producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein.
To put that in context, the meat in one hamburger uses as much water as leaving the shower running for 3 hours straight.
The majority of this water is going into the animal’s feed, with the rest covering drinking water and service water (from UNESCO). Especially if you’re someone who is already very cautious about your water usage, looking at your meat consumption is a great opportunity to reduce your impact even further.
It’s essential to also look at the role of the animal agriculture industry on climate change-- the numbers are staggering. This graphic shows the comparison of different products' impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, measured per gram of protein:
From this graphic, it’s clear that animal products have a large impact compared with other types of food, especially plant-based foods that are packed with protein like pulses or lentils.
Now, why is this difference so huge?
One reason is due to the impacts of methane, a gas that is produced as a byproduct of the digestive process of animals like cows, sheep, and goats. Methane is over 30 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, meaning it traps heat at 30 times the rate. Two other significant parts of the carbon footprint are the fuel demands for the shipping process, since a lot of meat may be shipped either across the country or internationally to keep prices down, as well as the large scale production of these animals' feed.
We already talked about the amount of land required to raise livestock. But what does that look like geopolitically?
In many developed nations, there’s not a large amount of unused, arable land. This means that in many cases, we outsource our meat production to places with more “free space” (regardless of whether they consider that space unused). One place this has had a tremendous impact is in the Amazon rainforest; according to The World Bank, animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of the deforestation in the Amazon. And it’s not just land animals that are contributing to this problem of destroying natural spaces; according to the Cowspiracy documentary, ¾ of the world’s fisheries are depleted and overfished. Not only does this harm ecosystems, it has social, economic, and cultural effects on the local people who are bearing the brunt of this exploitation of their natural resources.
Now that you’re familiar with some of the environmental concerns, what are the solutions?
Obviously, the key is to consume less meat and animal products. However, it’s important to remember that diet doesn’t exist in a vacuum-- food is cultural, and plays an important role for many people's health and well being. Also, meat is calorically dense and has lots of protein, meaning that although it can be expensive, it gives you a lot of bang for your buck. This is significant if you live in a food desert without access to fresh options, or if you don’t have the economic means to sustain a totally plant-based diet. All of these factors should be taken into account when discussing a switch in our national diet.
If you’re ready to take the plunge and commit to a plant-based lifestyle, go you! Welcome to the veggie club!
If you’re not, for cultural or economic or dietary or health reasons, don’t stress. One WRI study reassures us that if meat consumption in the US declined to half of current levels to about 50 calories a day (aka 1.5 burgers per person per week), it would eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion, even in a world with 10 billion people. This means that you don’t need to go totally meat-free to make change.
Start with a meatless Monday, and explore cooking with plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, or peas (check out this masterpost of great plant-based food blogs!). Swap out your ground beef for a Beyond Burger or other veggie burger, or see if you like your sandwich with a slice of tempeh instead of deli meat.
Want to go vegetarian but can’t live without chicken nuggets? Eat a plant-based diet, and then also continue to enjoy your chicken nuggets.
If you still want to eat beef, try to find it organic, local, and/or grass-fed. Studies show that happy and healthy cows in better living conditions grow faster (fewer methane emissions), and yield more meat per animal (more efficient). Plus, the closer the cows are to home, the less fossil fuel is needed to transport.
There are lots of ways to reduce our carbon footprint through dietary choices. The easy solution is to eat less meat and animal products (dairy and eggs). However, don’t worry about trying to be perfect overnight.
When we talk about the word “sustainable,” we don’t want it to only mean sustainable for the environment. It also means a sustainable lifestyle for you, one that you can sustain long-term and be content with.