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What is the impact of eating a plant-based diet on factors such as land, water and energy use, or carbon footprint?
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Carbon Footprint:

  • Eating a plant-based diet can significantly reduce your individual carbon footprint. According to One Green Planet Earth (OGPE), the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that 14.5% of global greenhouse emissions come from livestock farming, whilst the Worldwatch Institute suggests it may be as high as 51%.
  • OGPE also notes that 37% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions come from the manure produced by livestock.
  • Carol Smith cites the results of a University of Minnesota study that found that the production of 20 servings of vegetables creates fewer greenhouse emissions than producing a single serving of beef.

Pollution:

According to OGPE, livestock farming leads to water pollution and the creation of ocean dead zones (where marine life is killed or damaged). Run-off of excess toxins from animal manure enters and pollutes water systems, leading to oxygen depletion. An example given by OGPE is the 8,500 square foot dead zone created in the Gulf of Mexico by manure run-off into the Mississippi River. Water pollution can also lead to eutrophication of freshwater sources, where the excessive growth of algal blooms leads to oxygen depletion, killing aquatic life.

Land:

In livestock farming, land is needed for animals to graze, as well as to grow crops to produce feed for them. OGPE suggest that nearly one-third of arable land globally is used in livestock farming. A plant-based diet reduces the amount of stages in the production of food; land is only needed to grow crops, as opposed to growing crops for feed and accommodating livestock. Grazing animals also contribute to deforestation and desertification, as land is cleared to make space for pasture ground. The removal of vegetation by grazing animals increases soil erosion and water run-off, leading to increased risk of drought and desertification.

Water:

Livestock farming is water-intensive. According to OGPE, around 100 times more water is needed to produce one pound of animal protein compared to one pound of plant protein. Green Matters cites Climate Nexus’ estimation that 16% of earth’s freshwater is used in livestock farming.

Habitats and wildlife:

Deforestation and the clearing of natural habitats to make space for livestock pasture reduces biodiversity, and disrupts wildlife. According to OGPE, 33% of endangered plants and 14% of endangered animals in the US are impacted by livestock farming.

Here’s a final summarising quote from University of Oxford researcher Joseph Poore, as recorded by The Guardian:

‘A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.’

Even if you do not eat a fully vegan or vegetarian diet, simply adopting a more plant-based diet can significantly help to mitigate the damaging environmental effects of livestock farming.

Bibliography

Carrington, D., 'Avoiding meat and dairy is "single biggest way" to reduce your impact on Earth', The Guardian (31 May 2018), accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth?CMP=fb_gu

Hirsh, S., 'How Plant-Based Diets Can Benefit the Earth', Green Matters (2020), accessed at: https://www.greenmatters.com/p/environmental-benefits-plant-based-vegan-diet

Hunnes, D., 'The Case for Plant-Based', UCLA Sustainability (2020), accessed at: https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/our-initiatives/food-systems/the-case-for-plant-based/

Smith, C., 'New Research Says Plant-Based Diet Best for Planet and People', United Nations University (15 November 2014), accessed at: https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/new-research-says-plant-based-diet-best-for-planet-and-people

Ventrice, M., '5 Ways Eating More Plant-Based Foods Benefits the Environment', One Green Planet Earth (2020), accessed at: https://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/how-eating-more-plant-based-foods-benefits-the-environment/

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