In light of the climate crisis facing the earth right now, would we be able to save our planetary home if everyone in the world went vegan? Charlotte Willis looks at the facts.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there’s certainly no denying that we are in the midst of a truly worrying time in our planet’s life.
Going vegan is the only choice we have left. A choice which culminates in the appreciation and protection of the environment around us, to the benefit of all, not one. As a vegan, you may find your mid-afternoon slumps are spent daydreaming of a world where veganism is the norm.
There are no separate vegan menus or plant-milk surcharges — all menu options are plant-based and the only milk on the shelves is from almonds, soy and oats.
Animals are left out of our food chain to live out their happiest and most peaceful lives, illnesses such as stroke, diabetes and heart disease decrease, and the environment is pulled back from the dark path which it currently tiptoes down. What a wonderful world to dream of, but soon, out of necessity, it might become the only world we know.
At the end of 2019, The European Parliament finally declared an official climate emergency. Emission reductions of 55% in time for 2030, with an ultimate goal of becoming completely climate-neutral were championed at the meeting of parliament. But as per classic parliamentary protocol, which seems to follow a rather ‘nobody talk about livestock’ approach, international shipping and aviation targets were the main focus of the greenhouse gas ruling.
Which is surprising, really, seeing as multiple scientific bodies and researchers, such as those at John Hopkins University, have found that the average vegan diet is the most environmentally friendly of all. In fact, a vegan diet is so energy and climate efficient, it would cut emissions by 70% upon adoption (a typical Western diet of meat, fish and animal products adds 135% additional emissions per capita).
Combined animal agriculture (meat, fish, dairy, eggs, etc) is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, compared to just 13% attributed by transport. According to research, the picture is clear. We are slowly eating and drinking ourselves into a hot, fiery grave. But I highly doubt you’ll hear that on BBC news anytime soon.
Looking beyond the percentages, stats and figures, we find a hard-hitting picture. Deforestation fuelled by a desire to make space for cattle ranching is occurring at an alarmingly high rate.
Our oceans are running out of fish. Species are becoming extinct, some before we even have a chance to send Sir David Attenborough in to talk about them. Time, resources and lives are running out. My solution? Become vegan, and here’s why.
Climate change would slow down
There’s no two ways about it. Animal agriculture is fuelling a disastrous relationship with our climate (spoiler alert, it won’t end well). Greenhouse gas production from animal agriculture emits a dangerous concoction of chemical gasses into the atmosphere.
Livestock and their by-products account for 32,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide production every single year. Carbon dioxide, as most of us know, traps heat within the atmosphere, and contributes to rising temperatures and extreme weather systems.
Worse than carbon dioxide, however, is a gas called nitrous oxide. This greenhouse gas has 296 times the heat-trapping ability as carbon dioxide, with the added complication of remaining in the atmosphere for 150 years post-release.
The sad news is that livestock accounts for 65% of all human-induced nitrous oxide production so, unfortunately for omnivores, there’s no one else to blame here! Another notable greenhouse gas is methane. This toxic gas is produced largely in the digestive systems of cows (read: farts), and globally, cows produce 150 billion gallons of the stuff every day.
Due to our animal product-heavy diets, the earth is home to an enormous number of cows, whose rearing, slaughtering, transporting and processing is energy demanding and polluting. So much so that emissions from livestock are predicted to increase by 80% before 2050.
Commenting on the climate crisis, the UN states that rearing animals for food production is “One of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale, from local to global.”
If the world went vegan, we would be able to let these livestock live out their natural life course. Yes, they may pollute a little more gas and waste during the final years of their lives, but the most significant change in greenhouse gas and global warming prevention will be seen once we do not intervene with the natural reproductive cycles of the animals, resulting in declining numbers of animals until a balance is reached.
According to The Vegan Calculator, you can also save 3,300kg of carbon dioxide emissions by going vegan for one whole year. If other climate measures were also taken, we would see a greatly reduced risk of greenhouse emissions in the planet overall, with a brighter future ahead.
We could feed a hungry world
In 2019, a Harvard University paper reported that if everyone in the UK went vegan there would still be plenty of food available to feed everyone, more than adequately. By returning meat, dairy and egg farms back into forestry land, and using farmland to produce nutritious crops for human consumption, we would be able to sustain human calorie and protein requirements using the land currently occupied for animal feed. Rearing animals for our food use requires plenty of land — land which we just don’t have enough of.
Currently, despite intensively reared animal cages and enclosures which house hundreds of animals in confined spaces, feeding and housing animals for food consumption purposes requires 83% of our total farmland, but produces only 18% of our calorific intake.
So how is it that we have hundreds of farm animals who are well (and sometimes over) fed, whilst the majority of the world’s population goes hungry?
Once again, we just have to look at the typical Western diet. With current crop growth and farming of plant-based proteins such as soya the way it is, you may be surprised to know that evidence demonstrates that we currently have sufficient nutritional and calorific supplies to feed the world’s population, and indeed that of 2050.
The catch? Researchers of food availability and global consumption trends argue that gross changes in our relationship with food are needed, abolishing our current obsessions with animal products, and the adoption of a wholefood-based plant-centric diet.
Professor Nick Hewitt, co-author of a research body looking into such trends, comments, “Our analysis finds no nutritional case for feeding human-edible crops to animals, which reduces calorie and protein supplies. If society continues on a ‘business-as-usual’ dietary trajectory, a 119% increase in edible crops grown will be required by 2050.”
The problem is, at present, we grow perfectly edible crops such as maize, wheat and soya beans which are subsequently fed to incarcerated food-destined animals. All the while, these crops could (and in my opinion, should) quite happily be distributed to those who are starving, malnourished and in need.
To put it frankly, the developed world looks on at the starving developing countries, and indeed those in our own neighbourhoods and cities who are less fortunate than us, concerned for their wellbeing and pitying of their hunger, but not quite enough to sacrifice their steak and chips. Oh no, that would be madness.
Rearing animals for food production is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale, from local to global, according to the UN.
If the world went vegan, we would have an abundance of food crops to feed growing populations and we could reclaim pasture land for crop growth and cultivation.
If the world went vegan, we would have an abundance of animal-destined food crops to feed the hungry and growing populations. With animals not occupying as much land, we would also be able to grow and reclaim pasture land for crop growth and cultivation.
The oceans would replenish
The practices of animal agriculture spell disaster for our wildlife and ecosystems. Species extinction, ocean dead-zones, water pollution and habitat destruction are common consequences of the world’s need for animal products.
Large areas of forest, boasting an array of wildlife species, are cleared every single day to make room for crop growth and animal grazing. Species which are known predatory animals of the farmed animals are often culled in order to ensure maximum yield of animals for slaughter, further reducing diversity.
Pesticides, herbicides and chemical soil enrichment are used time and time again, as intensive production of feed crops leaves land almost completely exhausted. These artificial chemicals travel into the waterways of forests and rivers, poisoning and polluting as they go.
If the world went vegan? Fish would remain in their natural habitats, safe from overfishing and pollution from fishing vessels, enabling natural fish stock levels to restore.
The thousands of species lost every year would likely be history, but we would have the chance to help save those which currently exist on our earth. The rainforest would be left to thrive, preventing the displacement and habitat loss for indigenous peoples, animals and birds.
We’d reinstate balance
I’m sure you’ve all heard that great vegan myth: “If we all became vegan overnight, we’d be overrun by animals.”A rather obscene Animal Farm-esc armageddon scenario, I think you’ll agree.
Man decided to selectively and intensively breed certain animals for our own benefit. These species existed before our interventions, and will continue to do so after we have stopped manipulating the natural ecosystem and balance.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that we did all suddenly become vegan overnight (something which is not going to happen, just FYI). The current animals, destined for our consumption and use residing on the planet would be left to live out the rest of their days in sanctuaries or in the wild, where possible.
Granted, some of these animals may not survive for long due to being genetically selected to meet the requirements of the food industry (eg, many chickens are selectively bred to have a higher body mass than their legs can support, and so would be unable to return to the wild), however what is important is that all of these animals would be free from exploitation and confinement.
Food animals are intensively bred for our consumption and use, therefore, without human input, the numbers of such animals would steadily decrease and level out depending on their natural predators and food availability.
A vegan diet may be the future, it may be healthier and it may well look great on our Instagram feeds — but a vegan diet has also never before been more necessary right now. It needs to be adopted by as many people as possible, to help save our dying planet.
Find more information about the environmental impact of veganism here.
Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who’s worked with Veganuary and The Vegan Society. She is researching the links between food and psychological health while taking a doctorate degree in counselling.