I talk a lot about the ethics of veganism on this blog. And going vegan to reduce the suffering and exploitation of animals is something I think any empathetic human should care about. But today I’d like to focus on another crucial aspect which I’m sure most people can readily get behind: the urgent reasons to consider going vegan for the environment.
Have you ever stopped to assess the true cost of your mindless food choices? If you’re anything like I used to be, then probably not. As a society, we’re so easily distracted by instant gratification – whether it’s fast food, shopping, or vapid social media. The consequences of this kind of behaviour on an individual life can be dire. But on a societal scale, what does it mean?
Well, to put it bluntly, an unsustainable factory farming system to satisfy our tastebuds means a future fraught with global warming, water shortages, species extinction, land degradation, world hunger and global pandemics. From a purely speciesist point of view, it threatens humanity’s very existence.
If this all sounds a bit doom and gloom, then that’s because the situation is pretty dire unless we wake up to the problem. To act before it’s too late, one of the first changes we can make is to be intentional with our food choices. In this article, I want to consider how something as simple as your diet could really change the world.
- According to the UN, animal agriculture is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”
- Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91 per cent of deforestation in the Amazon.
- In 2023, the most comprehensive study ever (analysing the diets of 55,000 people in the UK) urged the introduction of government policies to help people reduce the amount of meat they eat in order to meet the nation’s climate targets.
- Veganism is the diet with the lowest carbon footprint.
- According to the documentary film Cowspiracy, you can save 1,100 gallons of water a day by going vegan.
- Avoiding meat and dairy could reduce your carbon footprint from food by nearly three-quarters, according to a study by The University of Oxford.
What Should We Be Doing as Individuals to Save the Environment?
A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth[.]
Prof. Joseph Poore, Oxford University Study, 2018
The Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule) states that roughly 80% of outcomes come from 20% of inputs. Basically, a small percentage of what you do dictates the majority of results. This is important because if you’re not careful, you can be a busy fool. By truly understanding the 80/20 rule in any area of your life, you can prioritise your time and efforts more effectively to maximise your output.
How does this relate to your environmental efforts? Well, I know plenty of people who say that they care about being more eco-friendly. These are people who will happily freeze themselves to death by not putting the heating on until mid-November and stress over what goes in their recycling bin… all the while munching on a Big Mac for lunch. And it just doesn’t make any sense.
You can reduce dependence on your car, be more careful with your water use, and go to great lengths to make your home more energy-efficient. But if going vegan, as study upon recent study suggests, is the single most important factor in reducing your environmental impact, then why is it not more firmly at the top of everyone’s agenda?
A Lack of Urgency Around Going Plant-Based for the Environment
This is not a summons to go vegan… [T]he idea of being forced to cut back on meat is unpopular with many consumers. There is something culturally sacred about a freeborn Englishman’s right to a plate of bangers or a Sunday roast.
The National Food Strategy (Part 2), 2021
Even in The National Food Strategy, a UK Government-commissioned independent review into our food system, there is a reluctance to advocate for veganism, despite a damning acknowledgement of the dire state of affairs we currently find ourselves in.
Time and time again, there seems to be a completely blazé attitude around the idea of going plant-based – as though it is some ‘unobtainable ideal’ that we can all but aspire to. As concluded by one BBC article:
So, in short, my opinion is yes – a vegan diet is better for the environment. But, it’s not the only way we can help reduce carbon emissions, deforestation, water scarcity and decreasing biodiversity on the planet. Still, definitely something to consider next time you’re out shopping for dinner.
Paul Allen, BBC Good Food
More so than any official organisation or legislation, it was arguably Netflix’s infamous documentary Cowspiracy that helped to bring the environmental impact of meat and dairy to the attention of the masses. And, if you’ve watched it, you’ll know the extent to which major organisations – including environmental charities – shied away from the question of animal agriculture in relation to the environment.
But if it was that bad, surely wide-scale institutional change would be happening?
I hear you, but in truth, it’s not quite so simple. As with any change that would cause major societal upheaval, it generally isn’t welcomed at first with open arms – no matter how logical. When it comes to the food people choose to consume, there is huge sensitivity around government intervention (e.g. a meat tax) because it would be incredibly unpopular. As one spokesperson said (in the same breath as stating that achieving the net-zero target is a priority):
People should make their own decisions around the food they eat.
Rather incredibly, another minister reportedly said that he would like to see ‘genetically modified cows that emit less methane’. If this is the best solution to the environmental crisis… well, the mind really does boggle.
Even a 2021 WHO study, which radically came out in support of plant-based diets, only tentatively suggests:
Gradual reductions in animal products like red meat and poultry may be easier to adopt and adhere to than more restrictive diets which exclude animal products entirely.
Anyone would think we were asking people to fly to the moon rather than simply stop eating meat and dairy. Ultimately, when economic systems are at stake and it’s not something the general public particularly wants to hear either, it just gets brushed under the carpet and becomes tomorrow’s problem. So if we want to see change, it’s time for us all to educate ourselves, be accountable for our own actions, and decide what kind of world we want to live in.
Here Are 10 Reasons to Go Vegan for the Environment
All of the food we consume has an impact on the environment, but some products take a much higher toll than others. Raising livestock for meat, dairy and egg production is very resource-intensive, plus creates a huge amount of pollution and devastation in its wake. In short, our appetite for animal-derived products (and the factory farming systems which support it) is an unsustainable model.
Here are some of the main reasons why you should consider going plant-based for the environment, today.
The increasing threat of global warming & climate change
Despite large-scale apathy, climate change is a very real threat. A report by The United Nations in 2021 even went so far as to declare a ‘code red’ for all of humanity. In other words, if we don’t act soon, rising ocean levels and natural disasters threaten humanity at large.
When you think about global warming, transport emissions are probably the first thing to spring to mind. But what many people are surprised to learn is that animal agriculture contributes just as much to global warming (if not more so) than other industries.
#1 Going vegan reduces greenhouse gas emissions
According to this Oxford University study, the best thing you can do to shrink your individual carbon footprint (by up to 73%!) is to go vegan.
Recent research has even found that, despite widely-held belief to the contrary, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the transport industry put together.
And, when you stop to really think about it, this is hardly surprising.
Every single step of the production process for rearing livestock is far more energy-intensive than simply growing and harvesting plants. From housing and heating industrial mega-farms, to growing crops required for animal feed, to the antibiotics needed to keep disease at bay, to the end products finally being stored and transported… there is a heck of a lot of fossil fuels needed to produce your neatly pre-packaged portion of mince on the supermarket shelf.
According to The Humane League:
[P]roducing plant-based meat emits up to 90% fewer greenhouse gases than producing conventional meat. Just one plant-based meal can save the same amount of carbon emissions it takes to drive a car across the country.
#2 It stops dangerous methane emissions from livestock
Carbon dioxide gets a bad rap (and rightly so), but another gas which arguably plays a much greater role in global warming is methane. It’s much more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide – up to 80 times more warming over a 20-year time frame, in fact.
Where does the majority of methane come from? Well, basically from cows belching. They can’t help it, as it’s a natural process by which they digest their food. What’s not natural is our intensive farming of 1.5 billion cows globally, which adds up to a dangerous amount of methane being emitted into the atmosphere.
The United States Food and Agriculture Organisation found that livestock are responsible for 37% of total methane production, so embracing plant-based sources of protein would be a great place to start when it comes to slowing the growth of global warming.
#3 It reduces the lesser-known yet toxic gas nitrous oxide
Also known as laughing gas, nitrous oxide is a largely forgotten greenhouse gas that doesn’t get much time in the limelight. But even though it is present in the atmosphere in much smaller quantities, it is also much more toxic. It can linger for over a hundred years before being broken down by natural processes, and warms the atmosphere by 300 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
The large amount of animal waste (aka slurry) produced by factory farms is a major problem when it comes to water pollution, but it is also a primary cause of nitrous oxide emissions that are accelerating climate change.
The need for conservation of the Earth’s resources
Animal agriculture is a destructive process which pollutes and squanders fresh water, causes deforestation and biodiversity loss, and contributes to soil degradation – all to satisfy our tastebuds. Here are some of the ways in which you can help conserve our precious planet, simply by choosing to go plant-based.
#4 Veganism helps to conserve our most vital resource - water
If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.
Dr Ismail Serageldin
These prophetic words, spoken in 1995 by the World Bank Vice President, ring truer than ever nearly 20 years later. As a species, if we don’t change our water consumption habits and reduce our usage, the UN estimates that the world will only have 60% of the water it needs to sustain people by 2030. Yep, that’s scarcely half a decade away.
Whilst we can take shorter showers or boil just the right amount of water in the kettle, agriculture is the elephant in the room when it comes to water usage. More than any other major industry, it accounts for a whopping 70% of global water use. Of this, a huge 41% is estimated to be used on growing feed for livestock.
To put it into perspective, it takes 15,500 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef vs 250 litres for 1kg of potatoes, or 180 litres for 1kg of tomatoes. In fact, it is conservatively estimated that it takes on average 3 times the amount of water to feed a meat eater compared to a vegan.
Disrupting the water cycle could lead to very real threats in our lifetime, including periods of intense drought and shortages. And, if you care about the kind of world you’re leaving to your children and grandchildren, then it’s an even more important consideration.
#5 It also helps to reduce water pollution
Another factor to consider when it comes to water is pollution – with livestock being one of the main culprits.
If you’ve watched Seaspiracy, then you’ll know that the huge amount of animal excrement from factory farms doesn’t just contribute to global warming – it wreaks havoc on our oceans, too. When toxic chemicals in manure and slurry (including high levels of nitrogen and phosphor) wash into waterways and eventually the sea, they react with the water to create ‘dead zones’. As the name suggests, oxygen levels are too low in these areas for marine life to survive.
According to a 2006 report by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is now terrifyingly half the size of Maryland.
#6 Going plant-based helps to minimise deforestation
It is estimated that nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed. And, as per the quick stats box above, the vast majority of this destruction is due to animal agriculture – in particular, cattle ranching.
With the soaring global demand for meat, a third of the planet’s landmass is currently dedicated to rearing animals to meet this need. And, it’s not only cattle that require space to graze – the agriculture industry also requires land to grow crops for animal feed.
Deforestation is terrible for local communities and wild animals. But the cherry on top? Trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the air and act as vast carbon sinks. So cutting down trees also directly contributes towards climate change, too. If veganism became widespread and we met our protein needs with soy instead, it would reduce the need for deforestation (with a predicted decline of up to 94%!).
#7 It combats biodiversity loss & protects endangered species
The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding – the loss of biodiversity… There’s little left for the world. We have completely destroyed it.
Even the mild-mannered David Attenborough has something to say when it comes to the impact of man on the environment. Because when we look at the issue closely, deforestation does far more damage than simply destroying trees. It also destroys the habitats of the many animals that live there. Rainforests are home to the greatest diversity of living organisms on earth (around 10%), yet these wild species are fast becoming endangered and extinct.
And, while plastic in our oceans is a problem, they arguably face a much greater threat from overfishing, which pollutes and destabilises ocean ecosystems. This single-handedly drives biodiversity loss and wipes out marine life even faster than those on land.
A plant-based lifestyle allows our forests and oceans a vital chance to replenish and recover – saving not just farmed but wild animals, too.
#8 Veganism helps to protect the soil
I know, soil protection isn’t the sexiest of subjects. Isn’t soil, well… just soil?
The truth of the matter is that the world’s soil is steadily being depleted. When land is cleared for animal agriculture, the nutrient-rich topsoil is eroded, making it difficult for plants to grow. Farmers also often over-cultivate their land in an attempt to save time and restore nutrients quickly. A short-term fix which only makes the situation worse in the long term.
We are already seeing the effects of the lack of certain essential nutrients in our food, e.g. selenium (which is now probably safer to supplement). And, if this trend continues, it is predicted that we could even experience world food shortages by 2050.
Veganism helps to take the pressure off the land so that natural rhythms and patterns can be established in ecosystems again.
The health of the world’s growing population
With the planet’s growing population, we are playing with fire when it comes to intensively farming animals. Whether it’s the infrastructure required to ensure no one goes hungry or the very real risk of a global pandemic outbreak, here are some sobering reasons you might consider a plant-based diet.
#9 Veganism is a democratic way to combat world hunger
In our current food system, 1 in 9 people suffer from poverty. With soil degradation and climate change banging on the door, the situation is only looking to get worse. And, with the earth’s population expected to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050, there is an urgent logistical question around the infrastructure to feed this amount of people.
To put it into perspective, currently, 80% of the world’s farmland is used to graze livestock. 36% of global crop calories are used for animal feed, of which just 12% becomes human food (most protein from vegetable feed simply keeps an animal alive, rather than being converted into meat). In other words, just 55% of the world’s crop calories are eaten directly by people. Right now, we could solve world hunger and feed everyone comfortably, simply by feeding crops directly to humans rather than animals.
It’s not just an environmental question at this point – it becomes one of privilege. Capitalism blatantly prioritises the production of luxury, non-essential foods like meat and dairy to satisfy Western demand. This means that an animal-based food system is far from fair when it comes to equally distributing the earth’s resources – the major irony being that poverty-stricken countries are the most likely to be growing crops to feed animals for Western diets.
#10 It reduces the risk of another global pandemic
When Covid-19 came along, it felt like something out of a dystopian novel. Outside of anyone’s control, it was quite frankly terrifying. And despite previous scares with Mad Cow Disease or Ebola, it was difficult to believe that something of this scale was actually playing out in real life.
This should have been our wake-up call as a planet.
The thing is, when animals are being farmed so intensively in cramped and unnatural conditions, factory farms are the perfect breeding grounds for all sorts of bacteria to spread. Disease is rife – especially when it comes to avian flu on huge chicken farms.
Instead of providing animals with more space or improving the conditions in which they live, the industry’s profit-driven short-term fix is to suppress disease by artificially pumping animals full of antibiotics. Indeed, you may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of worldwide pharmaceuticals are destined for animals (not humans).
This contributes to antibiotic resistance in the long-term, meaning drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ which can mutate from animals to humans and spread rapidly. It’s no exaggeration to say that the next pandemic is only a matter of time – a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’ – unless we change our ways quickly.
Is Veganism Bad for the Environment? Your FAQs Answered
Whilst we’re on the subject of veganism for the environment, I wanted to quickly address some of the main arguments levelled against vegans. Because although there is so much scientific evidence from major institutions and universities to support the environmental benefits of a vegan diet, it’s still common to hear a lot of information to the contrary.
Whether it’s Piers Morgan or articles on the BBC, it’s incredibly damaging to the vegan cause. I’ll be the first to admit that no diet will ever have a perfect zero impact, but perfection shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. So without any further ado, let’s take a look.
Vegans are hypocrites! Air-imported avocados are just as bad
Avocados seem to be a favourite topic for omnivores when poking holes in vegan environmentalism. I think the below video from Joey Carbstrong neatly sums it up.
In short, no one is saying that eating air-imported fruit is ideal. But it doesn’t immediately excuse you from eating animal products – the worst offenders when it comes to environmentally damaging foods. It is hypocritical to point the finger whilst continuing to do the very thing you condemn.
And actually, many vegans do care about these things. To be more ethical shoppers, we should absolutely do our best to buy more locally and in-season produce where possible. But just remember the 80/20 rule:
Shopping locally and seasonally is important, but it pales in comparison to the impact you can have by changing the types of food you eat.
Aren’t soybeans responsible for deforestation?
Soy is a driver of deforestation, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all vegan burgers and tofu. In truth, over 75% of soy grown worldwide is used for animal feed for livestock and farmed fish.
But plant-based milks use a lot of water, too!
Some plant milks (like almond or rice) do require more water than others to produce. But nowhere near the amount of water it takes to produce animal calories. Plus, there are other plant milks you can choose (like pea or oat), which require very little water at all.
A plant-based diet, on average, has been proven to cut individual water consumption by up to 50%. You’re therefore saving water in a major way.
It’s another classic case of cherry-picking issues, and doesn’t even take into consideration the vast amount of water pollution that is also caused by animal agriculture.
I only buy pasture-raised meat, though
Grass feeding is often framed as the more sustainable, ecological alternative to factory farming (and undoubtedly, it has a significant impact on lessening the suffering of animals).
However, it still drives tropical deforestation. And, with our current level of demand for meat (which is only continuing to grow), there isn’t enough land in the world to support this method of farming.
But some populations rely on meat in their diet
Of course, you can choose not to eat meat, but this isn’t possible for everyone – some global populations depend on agro-pastoral livelihoods and animal protein from their livestock.
Paul Allen, BBC
There are some areas of the world where communities rely on eating meat for survival. But this is hardly what we’re talking about when discussing industrial-scale mega-farming in the Western world. Surely, the point here is that we can choose to use our privilege wisely.
Going Vegan for the Environment: Wrapping Up
We’re fighting over issues, important issues, mind you – foreign policy, domestic policy, civil rights, social responsibility, social justice… All of these things are important. But while we’re tearing ourselves apart over this and expending so much energy, there exists this threat of climate change, which, to my mind, is conclusively proved by most of the data and 99.9% of the scientific community. And it really has the potential to destroy our world.
George R. R. Martin
Speaking of the analogy behind his hugely popular book series, Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin hits the nail on the head. According to the UN, climate change is the biggest threat we currently face… but you wouldn’t exactly think it when looking at the way in which we live.
The main takeaway from this article should be this: avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact.
When something as simple as the food we eat has the potential to make such a difference, we should all consider a plant-based diet to give humanity the best chance of survival. It also has the added benefit of being the more humane and health-conscious choice.
It’s a whole lot easier today than it was even a few years ago to make the switch to veganism, with loads of plant-based choices now available in supermarkets as well as vegan recipes to choose from. If you’re interested in veganism but don’t know where to start, then check out my beginner’s guide here. I’ve also got further reading suggestions on sustainability over here & a handy checklist you can download for free.