The world’s population has doubled since 1960, and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon.
During that same time period, global meat consumption has more than quadrupled, meaning that today there are far more domesticated animals on the surface of the earth than wild ones.
These changes aren’t happening in a vacuum, as the natural environment is under immense stress to support the production of all these domesticated animals.
Eating diets that are heavy on meat and other animal products is causing irreversible ecological damage to the natural world, and facing the facts is the first step towards learning how to make a difference.
For this reason, many people have turned to veganism and vegetarianism as a strategy for combating these concerns by eating lower on the food chain. If you’re ready to make a change in your diet for the health of the planet, keep reading to learn more of the facts behind environmental veganism.
WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL VEGANISM?
By definition, environmental veganism is the practice of eating a meatless diet because of the ecological destruction that animal products can cause the planet.
This method of eating takes the state of the natural world as seriously as the experience of your taste buds, meaning that you strive to eat a diet that produces less pollution and deforestation, and that relies on fewer natural resources.
When you look at the facts, the environmental impact of meat production is alarming. Keeping meat in your daily diet has dire effects on a wide variety of natural systems, including land use, water resources, greenhouse gas emissions, animal waste, social-economic considerations, biodiversity, and animal welfare.
It takes a lot of land to grow enough meat to feed us all.
While cows are biologically designed to subsist on pasture, modern factory farm cows are primarily raised on feedlots filled with corn. This corn needs to come from somewhere, and the answer is the vast prairies-turned cornfields across the American Midwest.
The ratio of feed is twelve pounds of grain to produce each pound of beef, meaning that feeding animals grain crops that could otherwise be fed to humans is an incredible waste of agricultural land.
In the same way, herds of cattle can be disastrous for fragile ecosystems. When allowed to overgraze, cattle can cause soil erosion and the loss of topsoil. Close to 30 percent of land on earth is used for raising livestock, which means the negative effects of cattle are multiplied across the surface. Currently, 70 percent of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is directly related to beef production.
Demand for meat is expected to double by 2050, only increasing the pressure put on the world’s limited land resources to deliver. While there are ways to raise cattle that actually increase soil health and make land more fertile, far too few farmers are following these methods, and the vast majority of industrial nation’s meat is raised in factory farms.
In contrast, studies have shown that a vegan diet only requires a third of the land needed for regular meat diets, meaning that an additional 3.5 billion people could be fed off the food that is fed to livestock instead.
Nothing can live without water, and livestock is no exception. According to the Water Education Foundation, it takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce each pound of California beef (and 1,000 for each gallon of milk), which is the equivalent of showering for seven minutes every day for six months.
In contrast, it takes just 25 gallons of water to produce each pound of wheat, and it doesn’t produce manure or methane gases as a byproduct.
Currently, farming accounts for about 70% of the planet’s freshwater, and predictions show that the world will only have about 60% of the water it needs by 2030, meaning that major conflicts about water policies seem inevitable.
For this reason, raising animals for meat might soon seem to be an unnecessary extravagance that should be cast off in favor of environmental veganism.
In the same way, agriculture is also the worst water polluter in the world. Factory farm manure pollutes groundwater and streams, often with all the antibiotics and other medications that were fed to the animals as well. This manure often contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, which can kill off fish and compromise the health of other animals.
GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Agriculture is a tremendous contributor to greenhouse gas emissions on the planet today, and four fifths of these emissions come from raising livestock, making them responsible for anywhere between 18 to 51 percent of total global emissions.
If people began to eat diets made up of less meat and other animal products, a massive amount of fossil fuels could be spared.
With rising temperatures and sea levels from global warming on the planet today, it’s becoming more important than ever to pay attention to the food on our plates, and livestock continues to be disproportionately responsible for causing these problems in the first place.
Concentrating livestock production into one massive factory might make sense from an economic standpoint, but it creates a tremendous amount of waste from manure and urine. Not only are these substances hazardous to human health, they are rarely disposed of in ways that prevents them from leaking into the water system.
In just one day, a dairy cow can produce over 120 pounds of manure that builds up in her stall. Multiple this by the thousands of cows in a typical dairy farm, and you’ll start to get a sense of the problem. This fecal material contains high levels of ammonia that is extremely toxic to fish and depletes oxygen in water systems.
Unfortunately, millions of gallons of fecal material regularly leaks into water systems and can even contribute to the growth of pathogens that can harm humans.
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CONSIDERATION
At this time, each citizen in the United States consumes as estimated 193 pounds of meat every year, more than anywhere else in the world and over 40 times the yearly consumption for the average Bangladeshi.
This means that Americans are consuming more than their fair share of the world’s resources and creating worse global conditions for the rest of the world for the benefit of their diet.
If you live in an industrialized country, cutting down on your meat consumption means that you are using a more equitable share of the world’s limited resources and contributing to less topsoil loss and other negative environmental impacts for the rest of the planet.
The evidence shows that livestock might be the biggest cause of a loss of biodiversity in the rest of the world. Cutting down the Amazon rainforest in order to create pasture space for beef cattle eliminates the habitat for thousands of plants and animals, many of which are located only in that area.
Potentially even more damaging to the world’s natural biodiversity is the use of pesticides to keep crops like corn safe from invaders. These chemicals often kill more than their target species and can lead to deaths of songbirds, small mammals and other animals.
In the same way, farmers and ranchers often eliminate the natural “competition” for their livestock like wolves, mountain lions and coyotes with little thought to ways to work with them instead of against them.
Today, the livestock industry is doing everything it can to keep consumers out of their processes and convince them that all animals live happy, healthy lives before we eat them. Unfortunately, that’s far from true.
The abuses of animals in the livestock industry are well documented, including the culling of unwanted males in the egg and dairy industry to the small gestation crates for pigs and the abysmal ammonia conditions for chickens.
Factory farms are focused on creating food cheaply, quickly and effortlessly, which means that the space given to individual animals continues to shrink and the quality of their diets are often compromised to make a profit.
For this reason, many animals are turned into cannibals by being fed the ground up body parts of the remnants from the meat industry. Not only is this unnatural from the ruminant stomachs of naturally herbivore cows, it’s also toxic for humans and a leading cause of potentially fatal diseases like Mad Cow disease.
In an effort to avoid cruelty, some consumers turn towards ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ labels on their meat products instead. Unfortunately, these labels are often misleading because organic certification rarely goes far enough to make a difference in the quality of life for most animals.
WHAT IS AN ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT?
When it comes to living more sustainably, it’s important to have an idea how big your ecological footprint is at the beginning. An ecological footprint is defined as a measurement of your lifestyle’s demand on nature. This can be measured in a variety of ways, from where you live, how (and how often) you travel, how big your house is and much more.
To learn more about what an ecological footprint is and to see what yours is, you can use this calculator to learn the facts about your impact on the earth.
WHY DOES A VEGAN LEAVE A SMALLER ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT THAN AN OMNIVORE?
One of the biggest ways to boost the size of your ecological footprint is to eat a diet filled with factory-farmed meat and other animal products. This means that if everyone ate the same way as you, more earths would be needed to provide the necessary resources for everyone to eat like you.
To keep your footprint within sustainable levels that the planet can support, eating a plant based diet can make a big difference.
Sticking to foods found lower in the food chain will improve the biocapacity of the earth and ensure that more calories are available for more people and wildlife.
COULD A VEGAN DIET CHANGE THE WORLD?
There is ample evidence that a vegan diet will make a tremendous difference for the sustainability of your lifestyle, though it’s not necessarily the only way to eat sustainably.
If modern agriculture throughout America was specifically tailored towards vegan eating, roughly 735 million people could be fed.
However, a diet that involved sustainably-raised dairy and eggs has been shown to feed 807 million people because pasture-raised cows and chickens could take advantage of land not suitable for growing food crops.
For this reason, veganism might not be the absolute answer to saving the world. However, it makes a tremendous difference, and cutting out any level of animal products from your diet will make powerful progress towards a sustainable future.
If you care about the planet, it might make sense to cut animal products out of your life. The current western diet is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, habitat loss for endangered species and wasted water. In contrast, going plant-based lets you live lighter on the earth by eating lower on the food chain and requires fewer inputs for each meal.
Cutting even one meaty meal from your diet every week will make a big difference for sustainability, and cutting animal products out of your life entirely will dramatically lower your ecological footprint and lessen the amount of resources you need to maintain your lifestyle.
There’s a lot to like about going vegan for environmental reasons, and the change is sure to be one that’s as good for your body as it is for the planet. So, if you turn towards tofu instead of teriyaki chicken, and you’ll be living a more ethical, sustainable life.
We want to hear from you! Did you go vegan for environmental reasons? What are some other ways to cut down on your ecological footprint? Share your suggestions below!