Veganism is better for the environment than an omnivorous diet. This has been shown to be the case across a number of different metrics, such as greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, soil health, and levels of pollution.
1. REDUCED GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
Animal agriculture, and meat and dairy specifically, are massive emitters of greenhouse gases. Meat and dairy alone are responsible for more than 14 percent of global emissions. It’s thus hardly surprising that eating less animal products has the potential to immensely reduce emissions and be a key part of reducing the effects of climate change.
The average Western diet results in the emission of 7.2kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) greenhouse gases every day, whereas a vegetarian diet is responsible for 3.8kg and a vegan diet just 2.9kg. While the difference is striking at even an individual scale, the impact grows when applied globally. When compared to a standard Western diet, if the entire global population were to adopt a climatarian diet — one that encourages switching from red meat to fish and chicken — just under 3.5bn tonnes of CO2e gases would be saved every year, whereas the global adoption of a vegan diet would save double that at almost 8bn tonnes.
2. LOWER WATER USAGE
While researchers have demonstrated that adopting any healthy, balanced diet uses less water than standard Western diets filled with meat, dairy, and processed foods, there are large discrepancies between those that contain meat and those that are primarily or entirely plant-based. Whereas adopting a healthy meat diet lowers one’s water footprint by 11 to 35 percent, adopting vegetarianism reduces one’s water consumption by 33 to 55 percent.
3. REDUCED DEFORESTATION
Deforestation is in large part caused by agriculture, and specifically animal agriculture. Much of the land that is deforested each year around the world is cleared to make room for pasture or to grow crops intended to feed animals. Though many different areas are facing severe deforestation, the Amazon rainforest is a particularly critical place that is of vital importance in regulating the global climate. Cattle ranching in the Amazon has historically been responsible for well over 50 percent of all the deforestation taking place there. The ongoing destruction of the Amazon led to the forest emitting more CO2 than it stored for the first time in 2021.
4. PRESERVATION OF BIODIVERSITY
Research findings suggest that the best way to protect biodiversity is to go vegan. Raising animals to slaughter for meat requires many more resources than growing crops for direct human consumption, including both land and water. Widespread adoption of veganism has the potential to return a large amount of land to its natural condition, restoring the homes of species that are threatened with extinction.
5. REDUCED POLLUTION
Animal agriculture contributes heavily to pollution of our land, air, and water. On land, pesticides and fertilisers are heavily used on crops that will be fed to animals on factory farms, while those animals then produce massive amounts of manure. Every day a single dairy cow produces almost 30kg of faeces, and even a large chicken farm can easily produce more manure than can be usefully spread on local farmland. Much of it runs off into waterways, causing harmful algal blooms that can choke out other life. When it comes to air pollution, as well as dust from farms containing manure, a major source of pollution is the digestive system of cattle. Through a process called enteric fermentation they belch up to 12 percent of their energy intake into the air in the form of methane.
6. REDUCED USE OF ANTIBIOTICS
Despite more than 70 percent of antibiotics already being given to farmed animals, antibiotic use within the industry is expected to climb by as much as 8 percent by 2030. These drugs are most often given to animals showing no signs of disease, as a means of preventing them from developing illnesses. Among the antibiotics used on factory farms are several that are considered medically important because they are used to treat diseases in humans as well. The practice of using antibiotics on farms is driving the problem of antibiotic resistance and increasing the number of humans and animals who die from antibiotic-resistance illness.
7. IMPROVED SOIL QUALITY
Eating vegan provides the opportunity for soil to recover, not only because growing more crops and farming fewer animals requires less farmland, but also because if this change happened at scale, methods of production that encourage healthy soil could be explored more thoroughly and applied on the farmland that was used. For example, legumes such as peas are very common primary ingredients for plant-based products. This class of plants also supports healthy soil development without requiring the application of a large amount of fertiliser.
8. REDUCED ENERGY USAGE
A 2020 study focusing on the environmental impacts of omnivores and plant-based eaters concluded that the diet of those who ate animal products required a greater amount of energy that vegan or vegetarian diets.
9. REDUCED PRESSURE ON OVERFISHED OCEANS
Animal agriculture has a profound negative impact on oceans. Fish farms or aquaculture, industrial fishing, and factory farms on land all contribute. The farming of fish such as salmon in pens in the ocean risks contaminating surrounding environments with diseases, and allows the farmed fish waste directly into the surrounding waters. Meanwhile, industrial fishing disrupts sensitive ecosystems, having lasting effects on biodiversity. Terrestrial factory farms produce a massive amount of waste which finds its way into rivers and bays with often disastrous effects.
10. COMBATTING WORLD HUNGER
World hunger is the result of a number of interconnected pressures. Adopting a vegan diet at a large enough scale would allow for the restoration and recovery of many natural habitats, allowing many smaller communities to live off the land. Further, plant-based foods are far more efficient than meat items. For example, cattle raised for beef convert only 1.9 percent of the feed they consume into meat. Yet while widespread veganism would dramatically change the global food system, it would unfortunately not solve the social and political failure that has resulted in 828 million people experiencing hunger around the world. While so many millions are going hungry, others are wasting 2.5bn tons of food, representing up to 40 percent all that is produced.
HOW DOES VEGANISM HELP THE ENVIRONMENT?
There are numerous environmental advantages of a vegan diet, even over other plant-based diets such as vegetarianism and pescatarianism. A vegan diet uses less water, would allow a greater amount of land to be reverted to its natural state prior to being deforested, and reduces the pressure on oceans and other ecosystems, allowing biodiversity to be restored.
VEGAN ENVIRONMENTAL STATISTICS
- Though the average person in the world consumed 43kg of meat in 2014, those in Western countries tend to consume more than those in many other places. For example, in the United States and Australia meat consumption per capita tops 100kg annually whereas in many African countries 10kg or less of meat is the average.
- Unfortunately, as a country’s income increases, consumption of meat usually does as well. Estimates suggest that by 2050 the amount of meat eaten globally could increase by up to 160 percent.
- Climate change experts have already warned that in order to meet our goals, diets need to change and focus more on plant-derived foods that are less detrimental to the environment and produce fewer greenhouse gases. Without such a shift we could be signing our own death warrant.
IMPACT OF A PERSON BECOMING VEGAN
One thing that often holds people back from switching to a vegan diet is that their change won’t make a difference in the face of everyone who continues to consume meat. This thought process is dangerous, however, as if everyone thinks this way, then no one will change their habits. More importantly, this way of thinking is simply wrong. Choosing to consume a vegan diet instead of a typical Western one has a monumental impact. Eating vegan for just one day a week saves 1100 gallons of water, 30 sq ft of forest, and one innocent animal life.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THE ENVIRONMENT IF EVERYONE WAS VEGAN?
If everyone were to go vegan, greenhouse gas emissions would go down significantly, less water would be needed for food production, the land necessary to grow food would be only a quarter of what it is now, and nature could start reclaiming much of the other land, providing safe havens for plants and animals that are being placed at risk by our current eating habits.
Researchers have again and again pointed toward a vegan diet as a necessary solution for climate change. If more people were vegan we could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the amount of pollution in waterways and on land, and allow soil to recover nutrients. Despite this, global meat consumption continues to rise and factory farms are becoming commonplace around the world.