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Go Vegan - for the Planet

Eating Animals is Costing the Earth

Food industries that exploit animals also have a devastating impact on the environment.

The livestock sector has been identified as a major contributor to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gasses than the transport sector. It is also a major contributor to water depletion (through overuse and hindering replenishment), and water pollution. Thirdly, the sector is a major contributor to a loss of biodiversity, being identified as a threat to 37% of terrestrial ecosystems.

Comparing livestock products to other food sources shows that producing livestock products requires significantly more water, fossil fuels and land, leading to a greater environmental impact. Simply by altering our food choices., we can make a significant contribution to reducing our ecological footprint.

Greenhouse Gas Production

The livestock industry is a major contributor to global warming, emitting 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, which is a higher share than transport (13.5%).

Of these emissions, the livestock sector contributes 65% of anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions (mainly from manure), 37% of anthropogenic methane (mainly from enteric fermentation and manure), 9% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions (mainly from land use changes including deforestation), and 64% of anthropogenic ammonia emissions. [1]

Water Depletion and Pollution

The livestock sector is a major contributor to the water shortage, being responsible for over 8% of global human water use.

Livestock also negatively impact on the replenishment of freshwater, through compacting soil (thereby reducing infiltration), contributing to deforestation (thereby increasing runoff), degrading the banks of watercourses, lowering water tables and reducing dry season flows. [1]

The livestock sector is a major contributor to water pollution, through animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, fertilisers and pesticides used for feed cereals, and sediments from eroded pastures. United States figures show that the livestock sector is responsible for 55% of erosion and sediment, 37% of pesticide use, 50% of antibiotic use and 33% of the nitrogen and phosphorus that makes its way into fresh water supplies. This water pollution leads to eutrophication, degradation of coral reefs, sedimentation of coastal areas, human health problems and emergence of antibiotic resistance. [1]

Reduction of Biodiversity

Biodiversity is decreasing at unprecedented rates, with the loss of species estimated between 50 to 500 times greater that prior rates found in fossil records.

The livestock industry is a major contributor to this loss of species, with the World Wide Fund for Nature reporting that 37% of terrestrial ecoregions identify livestock as one of their current threats. [1]

Livestock’s threat to biodiversity is largely through occupying land that was once a habitat for wildlife. Currently livestock occupies 30% of the worlds land surface , with the highest rate of deforestation is currently occurring in Latin America, where 70% of previously forested land in the Amazon is now used for pastures. [1]

In a recent study, Wassenaar et al. [2] modelled the current and future use of deforested land in tropical Latin America and found that livestock production may be responsible for much of the deforestation in Central and South America. Whilst it cannot be designated a cause due to the complexity of causes of land use, modelling found that the most common use of deforested land was for pastures. The livestock impact is substantial considering that much of the crop land is also used for livestock feed. The research of Wassenaar et al in modelling future land projections highlighted both areas that are well known as in danger and also other forested areas that are at risk from agricultural expansion and requiring monitoring. [2]

Livestock also contributes to a loss of biodiversity through climate change, land degradation, sedimentation of coastal areas, overfishing, and introduction of alien species.[1] Also, species of native predators are threatened through resources conflicts with pastoralists. [1]

Inefficient Food Production

Producing the equivalent amount of protein from meat takes 11 times the amount of fossil fuel use compared to a vegetable based protein.

Further, producing the equivalent amount of animal protein takes 100 times more water than for vegetable protein. Much of this use comes from growing the crops and forage for livestock with agricultural irrigation accounting for 85% of freshwater use. [3] Fish protein also requires 14 times more fossil fuels than that required to produce vegetable protein (when the fish are caught via trawlers). [4]

In regard to meat and soy products, an equivalent amount of meat protein requires 6 to 17 times the amount of land than soy protein. Additionally, meat production requires 4.4 times the amount of water through intensive irrigation, and 26 times the amount of water through rainfall alone, compared to soy. Meat production also requires between 2.5 and 50 times (depending on the intensity of agriculture) the fossil fuels than soy protein requires. [4]

Comparing cheese produced with cows' milk or with lupin, cows' milk cheese requires 5 times the land compared to lupin cheese, and cows' milk cheese has between 9 to 21 times the environmental burden than lupin cheese. [4]

A recent study found that a vegan diet had the lowest impact on the environment. Organic farming was also better for the environment than conventional methods. In assessing the impact of single food items beef had the biggest impact followed by fish, cheese and milk. The sources of stress were from waste produced that couldn’t be used as fertilizer, land use, fossil fuel use and water use. The use of water for irrigating lands and crops to feed cattle was noted as an inefficient use of natural resources and unsustainable to feed future generations. It was also noted that land clearing in developing countries is often used for grazing and crop feeds for animals consumed in western countries rather than the crops being used to feed local populations. [5]

Another recent study investigated ways to reduce the impact of livestock production on the environment. Improved environmental practices were cited as one recommendation, however current efficiency measures were noted as not producing the amount of change required to significantly impact on emissions. Thus it was proposed that western countries significantly reduce their red meat consumption and that developing countries aim to reach this lower target, labelled a constriction and convergence policy which was argued as the most equitable way of addressing the problem. The authors commented that such an approach would also have health benefits by reducing the prevalence of chronic disease and lowering the contact between humans and zoonotic infections. Increased communication, pricing signals and policies which reduce population growth were all recommended to address the significant problem of ensuring resources are able to meet future population needs. The authors concluded that there are clear environmental benefits of plant-based diets. [6]

Clear Benefits of Vegan Diets

The evidence suggests wide-scale adoption of a plant-based/vegan diet would reduce human impact on the environment, improve some of our most serious environmental problems such as climate change and fresh water scarcity, and be a more socially equitable means of feeding the earth’s population.

What more do you need? Go Vegan!

This article originally appeared on the Animal Rights Advocates website. Animal Rights Advocates Inc. (ARA) is a volunteer-run not for profit animal rights organisation based in Perth, Western Australia that campaigns for the abolition of animal exploitation.


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