How Shifting to a Plant-Based Diet Could Save the Planet

Nicole Wisener

Most people are aware of climate change, and many would agree that climate change poses a serious threat to humankind and the world we live in. Information about rising carbon emissions, the dangers of fossil fuels, and the need for a transition to a more sustainable future has been presented in countless news articles, research papers, documentaries, and global reports. Although knowledge is spreading quickly, solutions to the climate crisis are not being enacted at the same speed. One reason for this is that the climate problem is overwhelming; there are so many different factors driving climate change, and most solutions require major changes to life as we know it. The problem can seem hard to tackle. However, there is a way for people to start fighting climate change from the comfort of their own homes – that is by changing the food they put on their plate. There is substantial evidence that supports the plant-based diet as a more sustainable diet. As things stand, the Western diet is mostly animal-based, and individuals are consuming greater amounts of protein than needed to meet nutritional demands. A plant-based diet will conserve water globally, compared to animal agriculture, one of the largest freshwater consumers on Earth. A plant-based diet is also more environmentally friendly because of its lower contribution to the greenhouse effect. It is critical to assess the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment in terms of land use and deforestation, as other examples of how a plant-based diet is more sustainable. In addition to the positive environmental effects, a plant-based diet is a healthy option that can better satisfy the needs of the growing human population. A shift from animal-based to plant-based diets is critical to combat climate change and support a sustainable future.

 

The Western diet is characterized by high protein content derived from domesticated and processed meats, saturated fats, refined grains, alcohol, sugar, fructose, and salt. As well, it is associated with a lower consumption of vegetables and fruits. In contrast, a healthy diet should contain a lower consumption of protein, and include a high intake of unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grain foods (Rinninella et al., 2017). With increasing prosperity within the developed world and among developing nations, there is a trend towards consuming more animal products such as red meat, processed meat, and high fat dairy products. Current predictions expect the human population to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050. In line with this, global meat production and milk output are both projected to more than double from 2001 to 2050 (Matthews, n.d.). As the amount of animal protein is growing in people’s diets, the total consumption of animal-based food is expected to rise by 80% between 2006 and 2050 (Ranganathan, 2018). While popular, animal-based diets are excessive and unsustainable. In 2009, the average person in more than 90% of the world’s countries and territories consumed more protein than guidelines required. On average, global protein consumption was 68g of protein per person per day, however this was 1/3 greater than the average daily requirement for adults. (Ranganathan, 2018). People are eating more protein than they need to, and reductions must be made. If individuals were to cut out animal sources of protein, their protein needs would still be met by eating plant-based protein. The overconsumption of animal products is depleting Earth’s resources at an alarming rate. The plant-based diet is an ideal solution that can supply adequate nutrients while having a lower environmental impact.

 

Starting with Earth’s most precious resource, animal agriculture requires and pollutes larger amounts of water than plant agriculture. Water is needed for animals to drink, to grow feed for animals, to mix animal feed, and to maintain farms. A lot of water is also consumed during the processing and transport of animal products (Gerbens-Leenes et al., 2013). In California, each person uses an average of 1500 gallons of water per day. Nearly half of this amount is associated with their consumption of meat and dairy products (Fulton et al., 2012). Australian studies suggest that an effective method to reduce water usage is to shift to a plant-based diet. Their research showed that it takes 20 times less freshwater to produce plant products, compared to the same weight of animal products (Meyer, n.d.). The replacement of meat, dairy, and eggs with plant-based protein sources may be essential to conserving the world’s water. Furthermore, animal agriculture is a major contributor to water pollution. This is due to runoff from the fertilizer used to grow feed, as well as large quantities of liquid and solid animal waste, that end up in our water sources. Livestock alone are the most significant contributor to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of streams, rivers, and coastal waters around the world (“How would a vegan shift save water?” n.d.). The effects of water pollution present as eutrophication of water sources, massive amounts of algal growth, and endangerment of aquatic life (Higgins and Hwa, 2019). The agriculture industry has major implications on water availability and aquatic ecosystems, and the effects mentioned are only predicted to worsen with increasing consumption. One study by Kim et al. assessed the water footprint of various diets and found that if all 140 countries they studied adopted the average consumption pattern of high-income countries, the per-capita diet-related consumptive water footprint would increase by 47% (Kim et al., 2020). This is simply not feasible based on Earth’s resources. Water security is one of the biggest challenges facing our planet. Currently, 2.1 billion people live without safe water and 4 billion experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year (Higgins et al., 2019). Considering the evidence presented, it is clear that shifts toward plant-forward diets are essential to reduce water consumption and water pollution, in order to preserve water and meet climate mitigation goals.

 

Animal agriculture is also one of the biggest contributors to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect describes the natural accumulation of certain gases in Earth’s atmosphere that are responsible for warming the planet and permitting life on Earth. While a certain concentration of greenhouse gases is needed to support life, too great a concentration is detrimental. The consequence of the greenhouse effect is climate change, the effects of which include rising global temperatures, more frequent and more intense weather events, rising sea levels, altered ecosystems, and greater spread of infectious diseases. An increase in droughts and floods is expected to impact our food supply in the coming years and is a threat to global food security. Over the past century, humans have released larger amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which have driven the warming of planet Earth. It is estimated that the agriculture industry accounts for 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (Denchak, 2019). Indeed, animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is greater than the 13% of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the exhaust from all transportation methods combined (Steinfeld et al., 2006). Other studies estimate that animal agriculture actually accounts for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions globally; these studies take into account the carbon dioxide released through respiration and the methane animals emit through daily processes (Hickman, 2009). More research is currently being done to get the best estimate; regardless, it is clear either way that animal agriculture is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. A study by Oxford University found that in comparison to vegans, meat-eaters were responsible for two and a half times more dietary greenhouse gas emissions per day (“Fight Climate Change by Going Vegan,” 2018). So, if a vegan diet is better for the environment, what does this mean for the future? In the same study by Kim et al. mentioned earlier, they found that if all countries were to adopt the average consumption pattern of high-income countries, the per-capita diet-related greenhouse gas emissions would increase by an average of 135%. In contrast, a theoretical shift to vegan diets in these countries would reduce per-capita diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 70%. (Kim et al., 2020). While humans are mostly responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions over the past century, we are also the ones who will dictate the future. The most powerful step that we can take on the individual level to halt climate change is to stop consuming meat, eggs, and dairy products. A global shift towards plant-based diets is fundamental in combatting the worst effects of climate change and preventing its progression.

 

One of the largest arguments in favor of animal agriculture is that livestock can be produced on marginal croplands, which are regions of land that are not optimal for growing most vegetables and fruits due to the nature of the soil or the climate. Typically, this land is used to raise livestock and serves as their grazing land (“Animal Agriculture and Climate,” 2019). This argument is flawed for a few reasons. First, if corn can be grown on marginal croplands to feed animals, this corn can be grown to feed humans. Second, with current technology, some of this marginal cropland can be converted to better soils that are fit for growing crops to supply the human population. Third, animals are not only reared on marginal cropland, but rather they are also farmed on land that could optimally be used to grow crops for humans. Animal agriculture is known to be the biggest land use system on Earth and is the primary cause of deforestation. With more people increasing their meat intake in recent years, forests have been cut down in order to supply land for animal production. In doing this, carbon sinks have been eliminated. One of the vital roles of forests is to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it. However, without trees to perform respiration, this carbon stays in the atmosphere and contributes to the greenhouse effect, driving global warming. Furthermore, cutting down forests involves destroying habitats and endangering many species, or driving them to extinction (“How would a vegan shift free up land,” n.d.). Transitioning away from an animal-based diet towards a plant-based diet would consume less land, protect ecosystems, and allow forests to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Presently, more land is used to produce feed for animals or provide them with grazing land than is used to provide food for humans. It would be more efficient to use this land directly to produce crops that feed humans, rather than feeding animals for humans to eat. It is estimated that 700 million tons (635 billion kg) of food that could be consumed by humans, goes to livestock each year (McCarthy et al., 2019). One study of land use in the European Union even found that over 63% of their arable land was used to produce animal feed, rather than food for human consumption (“Greenpeace European Unit,” 2019). There is plenty of land available that can be converted from animal production to plant production if required. One important thing to note is that all this land may not be necessary for growing crops – it has been calculated that on any given area of land, 15 times more protein can be grown from plants rather than cows, which is more efficient (“Cowspiracy: The Facts,” n.d.). In order to reach the nutritional needs of the growing population, and provide better food for those who are undernourished, changes must be made. If more farmland was used to grow crops for humans rather than animals, then more people could be fed at less of an expense to the planet. 

 

Though many individuals instinctively believe that animal products are necessary sources of protein, there are actually many plant-based protein sources that are just as nourishing and are healthier than animal protein. Some examples are nuts, legumes, and soy. Many studies have linked animal products to severe causes of mortality. In a paper by Al-Shaar et al. (2020), researchers studied over 43,000 men in the United States and found that for every one serving per day, total red meat intake was associated with a 12% increase in risk of chronic heart disease. To put this in perspective, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States – it causes more deaths than cancer. Alternatively, the intake of one serving per day of plant-based protein was associated with a 14% decrease in risk of coronary heart disease (Al-Shaar et al., 2020). Meat consumption is also associated with colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes, and many other diseases (Richi et al., 2015). Therefore, a switch to plant-based protein is not only better for the environment but can also be better for one’s health. A good model of a healthy, balanced diet is demonstrated by individuals living in Blue Zones. Blue Zones are essentially five regions of the world where people live the longest and are the healthiest. These five regions are located in Greece, Japan, Sardinia, California, and Costa Rica. One thing these individuals have in common is their diet, which focuses on whole food and is 95-100% plant based. Fruits and vegetables are eaten at every meal, which is believed to contribute to lower inflammation and a stronger immune system. Typically, these individuals avoid meat, dairy, and sugary foods. Research has shown that people in Blue Zones have lower rates of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, type II diabetes, and dementia, all of which have been linked to eating animal protein (“Blue Zones,” 2020). Therefore, it is clear that a healthy and balanced diet can be achieved using non-meat protein sources, such as beans and legumes. Overall, a plant-based diet is a more sustainable option that may be the key to helping people live longer, healthier lives.

 

Adopting a complete plant-based diet would not only tackle health problems but would also reduce pressure on Earth’s resources, as mentioned earlier. While feasible, not everyone is willing to completely eliminate animal products from their diet. So, it is important to mention how reducing one’s meat intake could still lead to major changes. One study found that if the average American cut the equivalent of one hamburger from their diet each week, it would be the comparable to taking ten million cars off the road for a year. In order to mitigate the climate crisis, perhaps people could start by taking part in “Meatless Mondays,” in which individuals cut out meat for one day of the week (Curry, 2019). Another idea, which is already being utilized, is to implement plant-based food programs for school cafeterias, in order to help reduce carbon emissions and serve healthier foods. On a larger scale, making plant-based options more widely available, better tasting, and more socially acceptable would also help the population adapt to a more sustainable diet. Small changes may be effective, as well as more appealing, compared to simply eliminating meat altogether. At any rate, these changes must be made.

 

The shift from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet is not only possible, but also crucial to sustain the planet. The impact of animal agriculture on the environment is tremendous and can be seen even by reusing the example of a single hamburger. The United Nations Environment Assembly determined that plant-based burgers require between 75-99% less water, 93-95% less land, and generate 87-90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional beef burgers (Higgins et al., 2019). A plant-based diet is a necessary factor in improving the global conservation of water. According to the United Nations, if no changes are made, 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity in the next ten years (Higgins et al., 2019). With regards to global warming, minimizing animal agriculture is necessary in reducing the greenhouse effect. A plant-based diet also requires less land. Compared to a vegan diet, 18 times as much land is required to supply an animal-based diet for one year (“Cowspiracy: The Facts,” n.d.). This extra land could be better utilized to restore forests that will provide habitats for many animals, as well as to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Overall, the shift to a plant-based diet will combat environmental problems while better providing for the human population. The reality is: climate change is already happening. Sea levels are rising, animals are facing extinction, and weather patterns are changing. If changes are not made soon, humankind could face major problems of starvation, thirst, disease, and wars over natural resources in the decades to come. It is up to each individual to acknowledge the climate problem and become part of the solution, or risk humankind going extinct. There is no time left to delay action. The transition to plant-based diets can and must be implemented today.

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