World Vegetarian Day: The Environmental Impacts of Going Meat-free

LukeH
Published on October 1st 2019
8
These days, climate action is the topic on everyone's lips, thanks in no small part to 16-year-old environmentalist Greta Thunberg. The young activist is reminding world leaders and society as a whole that the degradation of the planet's natural resources cannot go on indefinitely.
The meat industry is one sector that activists have long flagged over sustainability concerns. While there is no silver bullet to solve climate concerns, let's take a look at what we know about the environmental impact of forgoing meat.

Reduce harmful emissions

For an idea of how a vegetarian future might look, you need only consider this 2016 study by researchers at the University of Oxford. The report estimated that meat-eaters could cut their carbon footprint by half if they changed their diet and incorporated more vegetables.
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The rearing of livestock has several negative impacts on the environment. For one, harmful pollutants like methane gas and nitrous oxide waste are a by-product. You will find varying statistics pointing to the industry's contribution to the climate catastrophe, but the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says global livestock is responsible for 14.5% of the greenhouse emissions. It might sound low, but methane has a warming effect 21 times that of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.

Less meat, more water

A body of water surrounded by trees
It's true; water consumption levels vary depending on the meat production process and the animals involved. But the rapid growth of the meat industry means more water is generally guzzled to produce the goods you see on supermarket shelves. Just think, livestock outnumber humans three to one. All these animals need to be fed and nourished which requires huge amounts of water.
It takes 20-50 times the amount of water to produce 1 kilogram of meat than 1 kilogram of vegetables, according to data from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
A deeper dive into the study by the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education reveals more on water footprints.
The study estimates that bovine foodstuffs to be the most water-intensive. Beef requires about 15,415 litres of water per kilogram. In comparison, a kilogram of vegetables can come to yield on about 322 litres of water.

Land reclamation

A herd of cattle standing on top of a lush green field
Nobody is saying veggie farming is a carbon-neutral pursuit. Harvests that feed into a global supply chain underpinned by farming out-of-season crops and long haul shipping are part of the problem.
But a move away towards a plant-based future could limit damage to lands like the Amazon, where large swathes of forests are often cleared to make way for cattle ranching.
According to a collaborative report by Switzerland's agricultural research centre, Agroscope, and the University of Oxford, animal husbandry uses up 83% of farmland but only provides 37% of proteins and 18% of calories we consume.
The study acknowledges the difficulty in switching up eating habits, but not before laying down the tantalising statistic that widespread vegetarianism could result in freeing up 76% of agricultural land. That's 3.1 billion hectares - a landmass larger than North America. It's a lot of land which could be repurposed for reforesting and wildlife reserves.

Food security

A bowl of fruit
It can be argued that a meat diet is not the best use of resources.
With more than 820 million people critically underfed, according to the World Health Organisation, we need all the help it can get. There are many reasons for this poor distribution, including extreme weather changes and harmful growing practices.
While pollution and poor resource management are not unique to the meat industry, the business is so large that it does fuel climate change in a big way.
Aside from emissions, the industry dominates land usage. A massive proportion of the world's arable land is dedicated to growing animal feed. That's not to shame meat-eaters.
But the current meat processing system is less than an ideal food model. For feeding the planet's population, a meat-based diet uses considerably more resources than a plant-based diet.
While going vegetarian is not an option for everyone right now, incorporating more vegetables into your diet could bring benefits not just for your health, but as we outlined, the planet.
We truly believe in the power of all things plants and would love to show you the way to eat and grow more vegetables in your home!

Could you ever go vegetarian? Are you already one? Let us know in the comments what kind of articles you would like to read about vegetables!

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