Veganism. Vegetarianism. Flexitarianism. Pescatarianism. There’s lots of different terms when it comes to diets – especially those that involve limiting animal products. Some people love these terms and use them to describe their identity. Some people find them preachy. Food is an important, substantial (and often enjoyable!) part of our lives, so our diets have considerable effect on us. They can also have a significant affect on the planet.
Many people around the world eat meat on a regular basis – typically at least once a week (but often much more!). Developed nations eat the most animal products, but developing nations are rapidly increasing their consumption too. So, what is the problem? Why would eating animal products regularly pose a problem?
What is the environmental impact of animal products?
Where does your meat come from? How is it raised and harvested? These questions might not come to mind while doing your weekly shopping, but they can have a big influence on your carbon and environmental impact.
Raising livestock is an incredibly resource intensive process; in comparison to an omnivore (plants and animals) diet, a vegan diet can reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 57%, and a vegetarian diet by up to 52%. Greenhouse gas emissions (including nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide) are produced by the animals themselves (belching and manure), through their feedstock, their transport, processing and keep. It’s these greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
Raising livestock requires land (about 0.75 hectare per cow) and water (about 75 to 90 litres of water per day). While the amount varies by animal, the natural resource requirements are high – and put constraints on resources that are often limited. In addition, much of the meat we consume is not local to our area. It is therefore associated with a high carbon cost, as meat is packaged and transported long distances via truck or ship before arriving at the store.
Not only is raising livestock resource intensive, but it is extremely wasteful. On average, if a slaughtered cow meets health and safety standards, only about 60% of the meat of a cow is deemed safe for human consumption. Much of the rest is discarded. Many animals for consumption are raised intensively, which can increase the transmission of diseases, fostering a dependence on antibiotics in livestock which may lead to future susceptibility- and potentially increases in antibiotic resistance.
Different animals have different impacts on the environment. Cows produce by far the largest amount of emissions per kg of food. Lamb is the next ‘worst’, with farmed prawns, pigs and poultry following close by. See the diagram below for more stats.
So should I just stop eating meat?
It’s not always that simple. After hearing the impacts of an animal-based diet, the answer should be clear cut, right? Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Plant-based foods can be resource intensive too – especially if they’re grown in monocultures, over large areas of land or transported long distances.
To consume one glass of almond milk in the UK, the glass would have required nearly 74 liters of water and is likely to have been imported from California – a place in a twenty-year drought. Avocados? Likely to be imported from Central America. Soya? The same.
It’s important to consider what you eat and where it comes from. Eating local is often seen as the solution. However, eating local meat and animal-products will still be far more greenhouse gas intensive than eating local plant-based foods. Expense also comes into account – local providers are often more pricey than supermarkets… but plant-based foods can be cheaper than meat.
When it comes to diets, there are lots of strong opinions… especially when the word vegan is mentioned. While all foods have environmental impacts, the impact of a plant-based diet is usually much smaller. Even simply cutting your consumption of meat to once or twice a week can have a massive effect on reducing your diet’s environmental impact… especially if you’re also considering where your food is coming from. Going vegan or vegetarian, en mass, can definitely have an affect on climate change.
Advanced Nutrition – Vegetarian Diets: Planetary Health and Its Alignment with Human Health – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6855976/
Animal Frontiers – Livestock and climate change: impact of livestock on climate and mitigation strategies – https://academic.oup.com/af/article/9/1/69/5173494
The Atlantic – The Deadstock Dilemma: Our Toxic Meat Waste – https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/08/the-deadstock-dilemma-our-toxic-meat-waste/61191/
BBC – Why the vegan diet is not always green -https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200211-why-the-vegan-diet-is-not-always-green
Current Developments in Nutrition – Vegan vs Paleo: Carbon Footprints and Diet Quality of 5 Popular Eating Patterns as Reported by US Consumers – https://academic.oup.com/cdn/article/3/Supplement_1/nzz047.P03-007-19/5517901
Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources – Water Requirements for Beef Cattle – https://beef.unl.edu/water-requirements-for-beef-cattle
National Geographic – The Evolution of Diet – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/
National Library of Medicine – Rising consumption of meat and milk in developing countries has created a new food revolution – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14672289/
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – National Integrated Drought Information System “California Drought” – https://www.drought.gov/states/california
Natural Resources Conservation Service – Balancing your Animals with your Forage: small scale solutions for your farm -https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1167344.pdf
Public Broadcasting Service – Frontline “Modern Meat – Interview with Michael Pollan – https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/interviews/pollan.html
Visual Capitalist – The Carbon Footprint of the Food Supply Chain – https://www.visualcapitalist.com/visualising-the-greenhouse-gas-impact-of-each-food/