Every bite of food we consume has an impact on the environment. However, some foods have a much greater impact than others.
Meat production has a significant environmental impact. Every year, breeding, raising, and slaughtering billions of animals for food necessitates massive amounts of natural resources such as fresh water and land, as well as massive amounts of waste and pollution.
Simply put, our appetite for meat is unsustainable, as is the factory farming system that feeds it. However, we do not have to rely on unsustainable factory farms to feed ourselves.
This is where veganism enters the picture. We can stop the rapid depletion of Earth’s resources, slow the threat of climate change, and help protect our planet for future generations by eliminating our consumption of animal products and shifting to plant-based eating.
Veganism and climate change
The United Nations’ 2021 report on climate change issued a “code red” warning to all of humanity: the climate crisis is unfolding in real-time, and if we do not act quickly, frequent natural disasters and rising sea levels will put millions of people in immediate danger. We only have a few years to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, which will necessitate a series of cascading paradigm shifts within our global economic system as well as in our behaviors.
Fortunately, the report wasn’t all doom and gloom: it provided concrete, actionable steps for reducing emissions and addressing the crisis at hand. The UN recognizes plant-based diets as a “major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change.” It advises governments around the world to implement policies to reduce meat consumption in their respective countries and regions.
While new government policies have the potential to cause a significant shift in our food system, the good news is that we already can combat climate change through our food choices as individuals. Continue reading to learn how going vegan can reduce your environmental impact—and how these positive effects can add up to a more sustainable food system for all.
How veganism affects the environment
- Veganism reduces greenhouse gas emissions
- Veganism stops livestock emissions
- Veganism removes nitrous oxide
- Veganism reduces energy consumption
- Veganism conserves water
- Veganism stabilizes the ocean
- Veganism protects the rainforest and lands
- Veganism preserves habitats and prevents species extinction
- Veganism protects the soil
- Veganism consumes fewer resources
- Veganism combats world hunger
- Veganism makes people healthy
1. Veganism reduces greenhouse gas emissions
Each of us has a “carbon footprint,” which is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by our own actions. Our consumption habits in the United States generate an average of 16 tons of carbon emissions per year. This is one of the countries with the highest average carbon footprints. To put this in context, if everyone in the world consumed resources at the same rate as we do in the United States, we would require the equivalent of five planet Earths to sustain everyone’s lifestyles.
What we eat is one of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint, and going vegan can reduce the environmental impact of our diet. In fact, according to an Oxford University study, going vegan is the “single biggest way” we can reduce our carbon footprint by up to 73%.
This drastic reduction is because every step of the production process for animal products such as beef and dairy produces greenhouse gases: from the clearing of forests to make way for animal pasture, to the production of millions of tons of animal feed, to the enormous waste generated by cows, pigs, chickens, and other farm animals.
Overall, raising and slaughtering animals for meat uses far more carbon than growing and harvesting plants for food. According to Joseph Poore, the lead author of the Oxford study, “converting grass into (meat) is like converting coal to energy.” It comes at a high cost in terms of emissions.”
Producing plant-based meat emits up to 90% fewer greenhouse gases than conventional meat production. One plant-based meal can save the equivalent amount of carbon emissions as driving a car across the country. If one meal can have that much of an impact, it’s no surprise that eating a plant-based diet full-time can result in a much lower carbon footprint. And, as more people switch to a plant-based diet, it will cause a massive shift in our food system, lowering our species’ overall greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change.
2. Veganism stops livestock emissions
Although we hear a lot about carbon dioxide emissions in climate change discussions, another greenhouse gas, methane, also plays a significant role in warming our atmosphere. Methane is 80 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, and it is responsible for up to 30% of global warming since pre-industrial times.
The majority of human-caused methane emissions come from animal agriculture, with livestock digestion and waste accounting for 32%. This is because cows expel methane while digesting their food. A single cow emits 220 pounds of methane into the atmosphere each year. When those emissions are multiplied by the 1.5 billion cows in our global food system, the result is a dangerous amount of methane in our atmosphere.
The UN recommends “shifting toward plant-based diets and embracing alternative protein sources to reduce methane emissions.” Humans could reduce methane emissions by 45 percent, which would be critical to slowing global warming.
3. Veganism removes nitrous oxide
Nitrous oxide is not the most common or well-known greenhouse gas, accounting for only about 6% of human-caused emissions, but it is extremely dangerous. Nitrous oxide emissions remain in the atmosphere for about 100 years before natural processes break them down. The compound is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at driving the greenhouse effect.
Plant and animal agriculture has been responsible for nearly two-thirds of all human-caused nitrous oxide emissions since 1980. And, once again, animal waste is a major contributor. Factory farm operations generate so much animal waste that they don’t know what to do with it: some of it is returned to the soil as manure, while the rest sits in waste cesspools known as “factory farm lagoons.” Regardless of where it ends up, all of this waste produces nitrous oxide emissions, which pollute the atmosphere and hasten climate change. You can help to stop the spread of pollution from factory farms by reducing your meat consumption.
4. Veganism reduces energy consumption
The meat industry’s dangerous emissions are not limited to animal waste. Our food system relies on fossil fuel energy to grow, prepare, and transport food. Globally, the use of fossil fuels is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 25% of total emissions.
Meat must be processed extensively before it is fit for human consumption, and meat processing consumes a significant amount of energy. One pound of beef requires approximately 31.5 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce—just under the amount of energy required to run your refrigerator for a month. Plant-based protein sources, such as beans and nuts, require far less processing and are thus far more energy-efficient than meat. Switching to plant-based foods reduces energy consumption and emissions from fossil fuels.
5. Veganism conserves water
To survive as a species, we all require access to clean, drinkable water. When we consume fresh water faster than nature can replenish it, we risk disrupting the water cycle, resulting in long periods of drought and global water shortages. The UN estimates that if we do not change our water consumption habits and reduce our water footprint, 700 million people will face “intense water scarcity” by 2030—less than a decade from now.
Agriculture uses more water than any other major global industry, accounting for 70% of global water consumption. According to a study published in Water Resources Research, 41 percent of agricultural water is used to grow livestock feed for the meat industry. One quarter-pound beef patty requires approximately 460 gallons of water—the equivalent of 23 showers.
We can save water by avoiding meat and switching to plant-based foods. Adopting a vegan diet can reduce your water footprint by up to 55%. Going vegan could be critical to preserving our global freshwater supply for future generations.
6. Veganism stabilizes the ocean
We already know that factory farm waste pollutes the air with methane and other greenhouse gas emissions. Still, these massive amounts of animal waste can also harm our oceans. Animal waste contains nitrogen and phosphorus, which can enter our oceans and chemically react with the water to form “dead zones”—areas where oxygen levels are too low for anything other than algae to survive. Because of the influx of animal agriculture pollution and the resulting dead zones, millions of square miles of The Gulf of Mexico are completely devoid of marine life.
The greenhouse gas emissions that warm the atmosphere also warm the oceans. The warming of the oceans initiates a process known as ocean acidification, which alters the chemistry of the ocean water, making it more acidic. Acidification can render water uninhabitable for marine life and kill entire reef ecosystems, transforming once-vibrant and biodiverse areas into barren wastelands.
The global meat industry, including the multibillion-dollar fishing industry, pollutes and destabilizes our oceans. We take a stand against the destruction of our oceans by not eating land animals or fish, giving underwater ecosystems a chance to stabilize and recover.
7. Veganism protects the rainforest and lands
Much land is required to meet global demand for meat—so much so that about one-third of the Earth’s landmass is dedicated to raising animals for consumption. Millions of acres of forested land are cleared yearly by the meat industry to make room for cattle grazing and crop production for animal feed. Deforestation is a process that releases stored carbon from forests into the atmosphere, exacerbating our climate crisis.
Cattle ranching, in particular, is responsible for the vast majority of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest tropical forest. The meat industry cut and burned over 111 million acres of forest for fifteen years, the equivalent of 84 million football fields.
Meanwhile, plant-based meat substitutes require far less land to produce. According to the Good Food Institute, plant-based meat uses up to 99 percent less land than conventional meat. We could save up to 75% of global farmland if everyone switched to plant-based diets. According to Oxford University researchers, this is an area “the size of the United States, China, Australia, and the European Union combined.” Forest ecosystems would benefit the most from the world going vegan: one estimate suggests that if we got our protein from plants instead of animals, deforestation would decrease by 94%.
8. Veganism preserves habitats and prevents species extinction
When the meat industry clears forests for cattle and cropland, it destroys the trees and removes the habitat for thousands of species living in forests. As a result of deforestation, species lose their habitats and the resources they require to survive, and their populations gradually decline, sometimes to the point of extinction. Every day, an estimated 135 different plant, animal, and insect species are driven to extinction by deforestation.
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, home to more than 10% of the world’s biodiversity. By removing animals from our plates and reducing demand for meat, we remove the meat industry’s incentive to destroy forest habitats for their production, thus saving not only farm animals but also wild animals.
9. Veganism protects the soil
Healthy soil is critical to feeding our planet, but human activity is destroying it. Farmers can no longer rely on soil health to produce the number of crops required to feed their communities when soil health deteriorates. If soil degradation continues at its current rate, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature predicts a “food production shortfall of 25% by 2050.”
Animal agriculture has two effects on soil degradation. For starters, widespread deforestation for cattle grazing and feed production erodes nutrient-rich topsoil, rendering it unfit for plant growth. Second, farmers who grow corn and soy for animal feed frequently over-cultivate soil to produce as much product as possible at the lowest cost. They don’t give the soil enough time to recover and replenish its nutrients, which increases their harvest in the short term but destroys the soil in the long run.
Reducing meat consumption and shifting to plant-based diets allow the soil to heal. By reclaiming land that humans previously used for meat production, we make room for the process of “rewilding,” which allows environments to return to their natural rhythms and recover from degradation.
10. Veganism consumes fewer resources
Meat production depletes many of the Earth’s precious resources, including millions of gallons of freshwater, vast stretches of prairie and forested land, and entire ocean ecosystems, all of which are lost to feed the world’s appetite for meat.
This does not have to be the case. We use millions of acres of land to grow massive crops to feed animals in our food system. On the other hand, growing crops for direct human consumption is a much simpler process. It requires less processing, land, energy, and water than raising and slaughtering animals for food. To summarize, plant-based protein is more efficient and simple to produce than animal protein.
11. Veganism combats world hunger
Undernourishment and food insecurity affect 8.9 percent of the world’s population under our current food system. That translates to 690 million people who may not know where their next meal will come from. Furthermore, as soil degradation and climate change disrupt global food production, more people may lose access to the nutritious food they require to survive.
Going vegan reduces deforestation, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat production, slowing climate change and securing our global food supply. Furthermore, if the entire world switched to a plant-based diet, we could free up 75 percent of the global farmland currently used to graze animals and produce animal feed. We could use that land to grow healthy, plant-based protein to feed more people and reduce global hunger.
12. Veganism makes people healthy
Factory farms confine animals in filthy, overcrowded conditions, fostering the spread of diseases and pathogens. Instead of giving animals more space or improving their facilities, the meat industry suppresses disease spread in the short term by injecting animals with antibiotics. Long-term, this adds to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance—the emergence of drug-resistant “superbugs” that can spread quickly and endanger public health. If current rates of antibiotic use continue, the UN warns that “antimicrobial resistant infections may become the leading cause of death globally by 2050.”
Currently, the vast majority of antibiotics produced in the United States are administered to food-producing animals. We reduce the meat industry’s dangerous rates of antibiotic consumption and help protect public health by shifting to plant-based diets and reducing demand for meat.
See also: How to be a healthy vegan
Is veganism good for the environment?
Our food system is broken, and our planet is suffering. However, we can create a more sustainable food system for animals, the planet, and all of us. Leaving animals off our plates is the most effective way to reduce our individual environmental impact. And, while it may not solve all of the world’s problems, it does help to mitigate the threat of climate change, which the UN describes as the “biggest threat modern humans have ever faced.”
So, join the movement. Save our planet by going plant-based.