To Veg or Not to Veg: Veganism is the Question
Recently, it seems like every other environmental podcast, Instagram post, or campaign is encouraging its audience to “switch to a plant-based diet!” It's true, switching to a plant-based diet is one of the most impactful actions an individual can take on to lower their carbon footprint, but is going plant-based always the most sustainable choice for you, and the planet?
WHAT IS 'PLANT-BASED', AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
A plant-based diet is exactly what it sounds like: an emphasis on consuming mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and oils. It includes the entire rainbow-coloured array of beautiful, natural treats from the ground and trees that Mother Earth has granted us with. Slightly differing from the popular ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ diets, an individual following a plant-based diet predominantly sticks to these food groups, but may occasionally sneak in a slice of cheese, the periodic omelette, or enjoy a juicy burger during a summer barbeque. The label implies less strict dietary rules than its buzz-word counterparts.
To understand why a plant-based diet is beneficial for the planet, we need to first understand the harm that is being done by the animal agricultural system. According to FOA data, almost 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally come from livestock farming. To put that in perspective, that is almost the same amount of emissions produced by all forms of transport (planes, trains, and automobiles combined) globally, and more emissions than the entirety of the coal industry. But where do those emissions actually come from within the process itself? I am going to break down what components within livestock farming are actually causing the damage.
WHO SMELT IT, DEALT IT
There is some truth behind this myth: cow farts (actually, the burps) do release methane. More specifically, methane is released through a natural digestive process called ‘enteric fermentation’ which occurs in cows, sheep, and goats. This accounts for 40% of all of the emissions produced in the entire sector. With over one billion cows in the world – by the way, a population only that high because of human intervention – you can only imagine how many burps are produced on a daily basis.
In order to eat these animals, they themselves need to be fed – a lot. Imagine with me for a moment – what if the amount of food going to feed these cows, pigs, and sheep (which then produce just a couple of burgers) were to go directly into the mouths of the thousands of food-insecure humans our current world houses? If we break it down, actually, it’s the watering, land management, and production of crops – such as corn, soy, and wheat – that feed the livestock which make up 30% of total emissions.
MANURE AND SYNTHETIC FERTILIZERS
Manure is also a very natural part of farming, and not in itself harmful. However, when left on the pasture and not properly dealt with, it releases nitrous oxide, another harmful and powerful greenhouse gas. That manure, combined with synthetic fertilizers that offer their own set of emissions – not to mention degradation to the land and soil – make up another 30% of total agricultural emissions.
The majority of remaining emissions comes from energy consumption, which occurs at all levels of production – producing the crops, feeding the livestock, caring for the livestock, the slaughtering process, packaging and production, and shipping. A lot goes into any single McNugget.
A plant-based diet then, in comparison, requires less land, far less water, no emissions from cow burps, and – with a much shorter production cycle in general – produces far less energy consumption along the way. It is estimated that for each day a person opts for a plant-based diet rather than a meat-heavy one, they save:
- 1100 gallons of water.
- 40 pounds of grains.
- 20 pounds of CO2 emissions.
- 30 square feet of land.
- (And the life of one little animal, of course).
If this is still too vague and abstract, here are some more comparisons to put it in perspective:
- The production of one hamburger has the same impact as driving a small car for 20 miles.
- A large pig factory generates the same waste as a city of 12,000 people.
- Livestock farming accounts for half of all the water usage in the entire US.
IN THE WISE WORDS OF BUDDHA: FIND YOUR MIDDLE WAY
There are clear environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. But what those facts and figures leave out is the pleasure, enjoyment, and fun that can be associated with these foods. It has long been proven that in order to stick to any diet, or goal in general, it is better to give yourself room to enjoy yourself – and breathe, rather than feel frustrated and suffocated by strict rules. This will make your choices easier and more sustainable in the long run, rather than burning out and quitting within the first month.
There have been several approaches to this ideology, including Graham Hill’s ‘weekday vegetarian’ (watch his TED talk here), and the up-and-coming term ‘flexitarian’. Regardless of terminology, I urge you not to get too lost in the labels. While often well-intended, labels can quickly turn out to be essentializing, exclusionary, and close-minded. Instead, when it comes to eating for the planet, find the Middle Way between what makes you feel good, and what does good for the planet, so we can all enjoy long, healthy, happy lives here on Spaceship Earth.
But just in case you need a little inspiration, here’s a bit of plant-based propaganda to get you excited:
- A roundup of inspiring vegan recipes.
- The health benefits of a plant-based diet.
- Pop culture icons who praise a plant based diet (yes, even Beyonce!).
- More information in general on the environmental benefits.
THE LESS TRENDY UNDERDOGS: LOCALISATION AND REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
While switching to a plant-based diet can have major implications to our global emissions, especially when done on a larger scale, there are many other approaches that aren’t as sexy as vegan frozen yoghurt bars, and therefore aren’t as widely discussed.
In an ever-growing, interconnected, and globalised world, our access to materials from any (and every) corner of the globe is basically at our fingertips. We have spices from India shipped to America, olives from Spain shipped to China, and rice from Egypt shipped to Costa Rica. As beautiful and inspiring as this is, all of that shipping has massive emissions and impacts on our atmosphere.
When thinking back on dietary habits, localisation is almost always the best solution. Supporting local, ethical farmers supports close-by communities, healthy agricultural practices, the local economy, and has far less transportation and production emissions than engaging with big corporations. Not to mention the more humane treatment towards the animals.
Take your time when making decisions when it comes to food. That vegan yoghurt at your supermarket may have been produced and shipped from Norway. Yes, it is a plant-based alternative, but it has likely left an environmental footprint of its own to reach that shelf in Trader Joes. Instead, you could opt for a locally handcrafted tub of dairy yoghurt from your friendly, local farmer down the road (… more likely on the outskirts of the city, but you get the point).
According to Regenerative Organic Certified, a visionary organisation established to promote and foster regenerative agriculture around the globe, regenerative agriculture (RA) is “a holistic approach to farming that treats healthy soil as the foundation of good farming while taking good care of the farmers, farm workers, and farm animals who work and live on the land.”
Some of these practices include:
- Crop Rotation: planting different crops at different times on the same land to improve soil health.
- Minimal Soil Disruption: avoiding harmful practices like over-tilling.
- Avoiding Pesticides and Other Toxic Chemicals.
- Rotational Grazing: moving cattle around different areas of the farm to allow the cow manure to sink into the soil and give time for the land to rest.
- (To learn more about RA and specific practices, click here).
Through the use and implementation of these practices, humans can foster a mutually healthier and sustainable relationship with the land and ecosystems we coexist with, as well as maintaining a lifestyle that meets our needs as social beings.
There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to climate change, and especially not when it comes to eating for the environment. With this information, I hope you can better understand the implications of the animal agricultural sector, the benefits of a plant-based diet, and the wide range of inspiring alternatives and initiatives undertaken to aid in this climate crisis. At the end of the day, these complex food systems show us how deeply interconnected all humans, plants, animals, and species are. A diet may be an individual choice, but it can have major impacts on the web of Earth. No matter what you eat, we are All-One, and I hope this diet movement is one step in uniting us as brothers and sisters in arms in fighting the anthropocentric climate crisis.
Cheers to healthy foods, love, and unity.