Our food choices have dramatic consequences for the environment. Reducing or eliminating the consumption of animal products is one of the most powerful ways an individual can reduce his or her carbon footprint, reversing the harmful effects current human lifestyles have on the planet. What we put into our shopping bags at the grocery store actually has more environmental impact than whether we bring reusable shopping bags or drive a hybrid to the store. Animal agriculture is responsible for many of the world’s most serious environmental problems including global warming, water use and pollution, energy consumption, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and species, as well as the detrimental impact fishing has on our oceans.
When it comes to global warming, farmed animals and their byproducts are responsible for 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report from World Watch.
For their report—Livestock and Climate Change, Goodland, who was the lead environmental adviser for the World Bank for 23 years, and Anhang, also an affiliate of the World Bank as a research officer and environmental specialist, found that previous calculations had misjudged and ignored certain emissions sources, and had assigned emissions they deemed to be livestock-related to the wrong sectors. The authors bring to light these inconsistencies through analyses of livestock respiration, land use, and methane emissions.
Based on their research, Goodland and Anhang conclude that replacing animal products with soy-\based and other alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change. The report states, “This approach would have far more rapid effects on GHG emissions and their atmospheric concentrations — and thus, on the rate the climate is warming — than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.” They argue that food producers should mount a major campaign to promote the consumption of plant-based foods, including meat analogs.
Another study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture called for urgent action regarding the impact of animal agriculture. The report said, “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale, and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.”
This translates to great news for the planet. The food and drink an average person consumes are the single largest determining factor of one’s overall ecological footprint. Why is this good news? Because knowing this, it’s easy and affordable to make important improvements in your own global impact. You don’t need to buy a hybrid or get solar panels to make the biggest impact. Reducing or eliminating the consumption of animal products is one of the most powerful ways an individual can stop harming the environment. The next time you’re assessing a food’s ecological footprint, be sure to remember: organic is important, local is good, but vegan is best.
A plant-based diet is by far the most ecological dietary choice we can make.
A recent study by the University of Chicago found that consuming no animal products is 50 percent more effective at fighting global warming than switching from a standard car to a hybrid.
For every 1 acre of forest cleared for parking lots, shopping malls, etc. 7 acres are cut for grazing livestock and growing the food to feed them. Over 260 million acres could be restored to forest if Americans were to stop growing the crops to feed livestock. It is estimated that 1 acre of trees are preserved each year by every individual who switches to a completely plant-based diet.
Over half the total amount of fresh water consumed in the US goes to irrigate land growing feed for livestock and to water them. It takes less water to produce 1 year’s food for a completely plant-based diet, than to produce 1 month’s food for a diet with animal products. Factory farms have the waste problem of a small city yet they have no sewage systems or wastewater management and most becomes runoff into our ground water and rivers. This nitrogen-rich waste causes bacteria levels in water to soar, causing algae to thrive and fish to die.
2,500 gallons of water yields:
- 1 pound of meat, or
- 50 pounds of fruit, or
- 100 pounds of potatoes.
In terms of an individual’s impact on the environment:
- Eating meat is like driving an SUV.
- A vegetarian diet is like driving a mid-sized sedan.
- A vegan diet is like riding a bike.
Fishing and the Oceans
Seventy five percent of the surface of our planet is made up of water. Of that water, ninety seven percent is ocean. The vast ocean at one time seemed protected from human activity. Unfortunately, pollution has penetrated the deep blue seas and no aquatic life is safe or free from toxins. Huge “dead zones” have appeared in significant portions of coastal waters. Pollution in the form of fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields, wastes from livestock farms, discharge from sewage treatment plants, emissions from automobile and power plants and various toxic chemicals have created large anoxic (no oxygen) or hypoxic (low oxygen) areas where fish, invertebrates, seagrasses, and other organisms cannot live. Due to the bio-accumulation of toxins, as smaller fish are eaten by larger ones, even some deep sea fish test positive for PCB’s and mercury.
Over-fishing is having massive consequences on ocean life. Intensive fishing reduces spawning biomass below optimum levels and reduces genetic diversity of wild populations. Today’s factory trawlers are stripping the ocean of life. Miles of netting scrape the ocean floor, indiscriminately scooping up an array of marine life such as coral, kelp, juvenile fish, marine birds and marine mammals. Only about 20% of the catch is kept to sell, the rest of these now lifeless creatures are thrown back dead.
Fish farming or aquaculture has its share of environmental issues as well. This intensive farming, crowding thousands of fish in small confinement pools, generates the same problems that factory farming creates for mammals. The unnatural conditions and confinement make the fish susceptible to sickness and as a result, fish farms have to add an arsenal of antibiotics and other chemicals to the water. The dumping of contaminated water, waste, feed and chemicals destroys much of the indigenous life around fish farms.
–Pounds of grain needed to produce enough meat and other animal products to feed a person on a meat-based diet for a year: 2,000.
–Pounds of grain needed to feed a person for a year if the grain is eaten directly: 400.
Soybean crops grown to feed livestock in the US: 90%
Corn crops grown to feed livestock in the US: 80%
All grains grown to feed livestock in the US: 70%
–Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agriculture land and 30% of the surface of the planet. (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2006)
–Number of additional people who could be fed if all grain grown in the US for livestock was used to feed people: 800 million (David Pimentel, Professor of Entomology, Cornell University.)
–Amount of meat consumed by the average person worldwide 50 years ago: 45 pounds; today: 90.3 pounds.
–Amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef: approx. 1581 gallons
Amount of water needed to produce one pound of wheat: 102 gallons
(A.Y. Hoekstra and A.K. Chapagain, “Water Footprints of Nations,” 2006)
–Percentage of overall greenhouse gas emissions:
Due to animal agriculture: 51%
Due to vehicles (cars, trucks, trains, planes etc.): 13%
(World Watch / World Bank report) http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf
–Percentage of nitrous oxide* generated by livestock: 65% (* Nitrous Oxide has nearly 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.) (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2006)
–Percentage of methane* generated by livestock: 37% (* Methane has 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.) (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2006)
–The average American diet produces more than 15 pounds of CO2 per day, which equals 5,600 pounds of CO2 emissions per person per year.
–A vegan diet results in eliminating 1.5 tons of CO2 emissions annually, or eight pounds per day, when compared with a non-vegan diet (Eshel G. and Martin P., Energy and Global Warming, 2006).
If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat for one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 5 million cars off the road.
- Meat-Centered Diet = SUV
- Vegetarian = mid-sized car
- Vegan = biking or walking
(Geophysicists Gidon Eshel & Pamela Martin from the University of Chicago, 2006.)
Water Saved By a Plant-Based Diet
- Per Day*–
- Meat-Centered Diet = 4,000 gallons of water
- Vegetarian = 1,200 gallons of water
- Vegan = 300 gallons of water
- 2,500 gallons of water yields–
- 100 pounds of potatoes
- 50 pounds of fruit
- 1 pound of meat
(Presentation to the American Association For the Advancement of Science, G. Borgstrom.)
If everyone went vegetarian just for one day, the US would save:
- 100 billion gallons of water, enough to supply all the homes in New England for almost 4 months
- 1.5 billion pounds of crops otherwise fed to livestock, enough to feed the state of New Mexico for more than a year
- 70 million gallons of gas, enough to fuel all the cars of Canada and Mexico combined with plenty to spare
- 3 million acres of land, an area more than twice the size of Delaware
- 33 tons of antibiotics
If everyone went vegetarian just for one day, the US would prevent:
- Greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 1.2 million tons of CO2, as much as produced by all of France
- 3 million tons of soil erosion and $70 million in resulting economic damages
- 4.5 million tons of animal excrement
- Almost 7 tons of ammonia emissions
(Physicist Noam Mohr, New York University Polytechnic Institute.)