What we eat: Saving the planet one meal at a time
Agriculture produces 15% of global carbon emissions and uses 30% of the land on Earth. In part one of The Day’s report, Climate Change in Action, we ask: should you go vegan?
What is the best way to reduce your impact on planet Earth? Stop flying? Take public transport? Recycle more?
In fact, experts say giving up meat and dairy is the single biggest thing you can do to save the environment.
Animal farming is responsible for at least 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — that’s more than planes, trains, cars and all other types of transport combined — and the global demand for meat is growing fast.
“Dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed 2C,” a major report concluded in 2014.
But it’s not just about carbon emissions.
Experts say we are in the middle of a mass extinction, with species dying out at 1,000 times the normal rate.
According to the WWF, 60% of biodiversity loss is down to meat-based diets. Now, almost two-thirds of mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cows and pigs. A huge amount of land is needed not only to house these animals, but to grow the crops they eat.
Farming is responsible for 30% of deforestation in Africa and Asia, and a huge 70% in Latin America. It is decimating vulnerable habitats in the Himalayas and the Amazon.
What would a vegan world look like? For a start, food-related emissions would fall by 70%.
We would use 75% less farmland and still have enough food for everyone on the planet. This would free up an area the size of the US, China, European Union and Australia combined, where the natural world could recover.
Going meat-free is not just good for the planet — experts say that 10% fewer people would die every year.
But some experts think this solution is not so simple.
Soil degradation is a global threat to biodiversity and our survival. While vegan staples like maize and soy strip the soil of nutrients, animal grazing replenishes it.
As The Guardian reported in 2017, the soaring popularity of quinoa and avocado is fuelling poverty and violence in Latin America.
The scientists behind the planetary health diet say that we should reduce — but not eliminate — meat consumption. They say Europeans need to eat 77% less red meat on average, and 15 times more nuts and seeds for a truly sustainable diet.
You are what you eat
Experts are agreed: we should eat less meat and more plants. But should you give up animal products altogether? It is argued that some agriculture is very good for the environment, while some vegan farming is very bad. Perhaps a balance is what’s required.
But all agree that farming on the current scale is a catastrophe for the climate and eco-systems. If, as projected, the amount of people eating meat around the world keeps growing, is going vegan the best way to maximise your individual impact?
Tomorrow: What we wear: Saving the planet every time we dress.
- Would you consider becoming vegan?
- Will humans ever stop eating meat completely?
- Could you be vegan for a day? Make a plan for three meals that do not include meat or animal products.
- Class debate: “This house believes that everyone should stop eating meat today.” Carry out your own research to add to the facts in this article.
Some People Say...
“Eating for me is how you proclaim your beliefs three times a day.”Actress Natalie Portman
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Vegans do not eat meat or products produced by animals, such as eggs, milk or cheese. The number of vegans in the UK rose by 350% between 2006 and 2016. One in five young people aged 16 to 23 have tried a vegan diet. However, around the world, the average meat consumption per person has doubled in the last 50 years and is set to keep rising.
- What do we not know?
- It is very hard to judge what would happen if everyone in the world became a vegan because it is so removed from our reality today and involves many different elements. There is also much disagreement about relative health benefits of meat-eating and veganism. It’s important to get information from a doctor before you change your diet dramatically.
- Greenhouse gas emissions
- Most agricultural emissions come from cow burps.
- Demand is rising especially quickly in China and India, where the growing middle-class is increasingly able to afford meat.
- From the Chatham House think-tank.
- 1,000 times
- The World Wildlife Federation says the rate could be up to 10,000 faster than normal.
- Livestock eat more than half of the world’s crops.
- Would die
- In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that processed meats, like bacon, are linked to cancer.
- Soil degradation
- When soil quality gets worse, often due to overuse.
- Poverty and violence
- Western demand has driven up prices so that many locals can no longer afford these diet staples. Mexican drug cartels are reportedly seizing control of Mexican avocado farms to make huge profits.
- Planetary health diet
- For more information, read our related article “The new diet that could save the planet”.
- Very good
- Farmers say that cattle sustain grasslands, which store carbon and stop it from entering the atmosphere.