Vegetarian or Vegan Diet: Key To Personal and Environmental Health? Vegetables May Just Be The Answer To Our Environmental Woes

Environmentalists work to improve the sustainability of the human impact on earth by advocating for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, protection of biodiversity and conservation of natural resources. Often, we think only of the environmental impacts of enterprises like industry, energy production, construction. These are all areas of great concern. But what if another important piece of the puzzle was missing?

vegetarian or vegan
Credit: Robb & Jessie Stankey, FlickrCC

Perhaps we imagine farmers as stewards of the land and thus forget to factor in their importance to the health of our ecosystem. It’s true that many farmers take environmental responsibility seriously. But it’s also true that food production contributes to environmental issues like climate change and resource depletion more than we might like to think.

As environmentalists, we should consider not only what we do but also what we eat. Not all dietary choices are equal when it comes to the environment.

The Environmental Impact of Meat Production and Consumption

In some communities around the world, keeping animals provides household food security during difficult times. However, as demand for animal products has grown in industrialized countries, farming animals is often no longer a family affair. Instead, industrial farming complexes raise as many animals as possible as “efficiently” as possible for widespread sale and consumption.

When we say “efficient” though, we mean cost-efficient, not resource efficient. Quite contrary, meat production is extremely resource inefficient. Beef is particularly costly. Beef requires 160 times more land to produce than plant staples like wheat, rice and potatoes, according to one study. It’s the most resource-intensive of all varieties of livestock, in fact. Producing just one hamburger takes 2500 liters of water.

The cost becomes even greater when you recognize that producing animal feed for meat production takes valuable land and resources away from other agriculture for even less caloric payoff. People dedicate some 80 percent of worldwide agricultural land to growing animal feed. Not all those calories make it back to humans. Some people fear that over-reliance on meat may affect our ability to provide for a growing global population.

In addition to use of valuable resources, raising animals for consumption also contributes to climate change. When ruminants like cows digest food, they release copious amounts of the greenhouse gas methane. Though methane disperses quicker than carbon dioxide, it also has a higher warming potential in the atmosphere, so it’s an environmental concern on par with fossil fuel emissions. Raising livestock on its own isn’t a bad thing, but problems do arise with wasteful overproduction.

Globally, livestock accounts for between 14.5 and 18 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not a number that’s easy to swallow, especially if you’re already concerned about the effect climate change may be having on the planet and on human lives.

Vegetarianism and Veganism as a Solution?

Preventing the negative environmental impacts associated with raising excessive numbers of livestock starts with changing individual diets, especially since government subsidies in the U.S. currently keep livestock industries afloat.

In one study, both vegetarian and vegan diets had reduced carbon, water and ecological footprints when compared to diets including meat. So, for environmentalists looking to make a direct impact, these dietary choices could be the way to go.

Going vegan or vegetarian doesn’t have to be difficult. Contrary to popular belief, animal products aren’t essential to a healthy diet as long as other options are available. By following a few of these simple guidelines, beginners can make the switch to a more environmentally friendly diet:

  1. Know Your Nutritional Needs — When switching to a new diet, you need to find replacement sources for the nutrients in the foods you’re cutting out. For example, you may replace meat protein with sources of plant protein like nuts, beans or seeds. Consult with a doctor to learn what nutrients you need and how you can get them.
  2. Transition Slowly — Going vegan or vegetarian to help the environment isn’t about being perfect. Instead, it’s about reducing how much you rely on animal products in your overall diet. Eliminate foods you won’t miss and slowly work up to others. Any effort you make is better than no effort.
  3. Search for Alternatives — Meat-eating pervades our culture. However, there are many environmentally friendly options available nowadays. Technology has allowed us to create plant-based foods that taste similar to meat and dairy products without the same negative environmental impact. Do your research and find food alternatives with lower carbon footprints to satisfy your cravings.

Veganism won’t solve all of the world’s problems. However, it could be a step in the right direction for many. By reducing demand for animal products, you can help limit greenhouse gas emissions and free up important resources for more productive forms of agriculture. If nothing else, try to buy your animal products from local, ethical farmers. They are less likely to participate in wasteful, cruel overproduction of animal products.