Plant-based diets are not only good for your health, they’re good for the planet. While the ecological challenges we currently face may seem daunting, you can make a bigger difference than you might realize simply by consciously choosing the food you eat. Here are five big ways that shifting to more plant-based foods and away from animal products can have a major impact on the Earth’s future.
1. Alleviate Hunger
According to a 2019 report published in the medical journal Lancet, more than 820 million peoplearound the world lack adequate food. And a big culprit in this food shortage is animal agriculture. That’s because livestock and other farm animals consume such a large quantity of the Earth’s edible crops. In fact, almost two-thirds of all soybeans, maize, and barley — and about 1/3 of all grains — are used as feed for animals. Animals are very inefficient at converting and storing energy from the food they consume. That means that by removing humans one step from the available plant food sources (in other words, eating the animals that ate these crops instead of eating the crops themselves), the vast majority of the available energy and nutrients are wasted. Many more people could be fed if we used crops for human consumption, instead of feeding them to our “food” first.
2. Reduce Greenhouse Gases
It’s not only transportation and industrial pollution that is eating away at the ozone layer. Food production in general contributes up to 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, with animal products accounting for approximately three quarters of these effects. Of all animal products, beef is the biggest offender. A 2016 study published in the journal Environmental Sciences and Technology concluded that replacing beef consumption in the American diet with plant-based foods would result in a 820 million people96% reduction in related greenhouse gas emissions. With the demand for meat and dairy products projected to rise dramatically by 2050 (76% and 64% respectively) due to population growth and income growth in developing countries, the choice of how much (if any) we choose to consume animal products becomes even more critical.
3. Reduce Agricultural Land Use (And Save Trees)
As mentioned before, much of the edible crop that is grown goes toward feeding farm animals. This is a big reason why agriculture occupies a whopping 40% of the Earth’s ice-free landmass. It takes an enormous amount of food to sustain animal agriculture. This enormous demand for agricultural land contributes heavily to deforestation. This is especially true with cattle ranching, which is one of the leading drivers of global deforestation, and is responsible for 80% of current deforestation rates in the Amazon.
4. Save Water
Water shortage is a looming catastrophe for human civilization. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has warned that water shortages are projected to cause major international and political conflicts in the coming decades. Agriculture represents the world’s largest water-consuming sector, accounting for around 70% of all freshwater use. And, as you may have guessed, meat and dairy require the heaviest water usage. The numbers are astounding. In the U.S., animal agriculture accounts for over 50% of all water use. Just one pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water to produce. Out of all the human uses for freshwater, animal agriculture represents our best opportunity to conserve.
5. Reduce Pollution
When you think of pollution, chances are you picture smokestacks, not farms. But pollution from animal agriculture — mostly in the form of animal waste spills and associated water pollution — is far more common than most people realize. Consider that animals raised for food produce around 130 times more excrement than the entire human population. Pollution from animal agriculture — especially factory farms — presents a real danger to waterways. According to the National Resources Defense Council, between 1995 and 1998 alone, there were “over 1,000 spills or pollution incidents” in 10 U.S. states, along with 200 “manure-related fish kills” that resulted in the death of 13 million fish. Statistics like these can help us all become more aware of the hidden ecological costs of widespread animal agriculture.