Consider the following realities;
The activities required to produce human food are responsible for
a third of the global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity (1)
Animal-based foods contribute twice the greenhouse gas emissions of plant-based foods (2)
A 50-gram serving of red meat is associated with
at least 20 times as much greenhouse-gas emitted
and uses 100 times as much land
as a 100-gram portion of vegetables (3)
This makes red meat about 35 times more damaging than a bowl of greens (3)
Switching from the standard Western diet to a vegetarian diet
can reduce one person’s greenhouse-gas emissions from their diet by 30% (3)
Switching from the standard Western diet to a vegan diet for two-thirds of their meals
can reduce one person’s greenhouse-gas emissions from their diet by nearly 60% (3)
Switching from the standard Western diet to a completely vegan diet
can reduce one person’s greenhouse-gas emissions from their diet by as much as 85% (3)
Looking at this from a land-use perspective is another way to see the threats of the production of livestock to our planet.
Livestock production uses 77% of all agricultural land
but produces only 18% of global calorie intake (4)
Inefficiencies of livestock production are leading to mass extinctions
with 90% of habitat lost
and 50% of all animal species expected to go extinct (5)
The United Nations acknowledges that our food system
is the primary driver of biodiversity loss
Agriculture alone threatens the extinction of 86% of the species at risk (6)
Using controlled grazing practices could reduce carbon dioxide emissions
from the production of cattle by up to 65%
however that requires 2.5 times more equally productive land
which would drive up habitat loss and species extinctions (7)
Other more recent research is corroborating these statistics. A study published in July 2023 looked at the dietary data of 55,504 people over 12 months and linked their food and drink intake to five key measures: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution, and biodiversity loss. Participants were classified into six different diet groups: vegan, vegetarian, fish-eaters, and low-, medium-, and high-meat-eaters. The dietary types were then linked to the environmental impact of the different foods being consumed based on a review of 570 life-cycle assessments covering more than 38,000 farms in 119 countries. Determination of the impact of each diet group included consideration of where and how specific foods were produced. (8)
Results showed the following (8):
- Diets containing more animal-based foods had higher environmental impacts compared to diets containing more plant-based foods. Meat and dairy have from three to 100 times the environmental impact of plant-based foods .
- Vegans in the study had 25% of the dietary impact of high meat-eaters on greenhouse gas emissions. Note: High meat- eaters in this study were defined as those eating 3.5 ounces of meat a day or more.
- The least sustainable vegan diet was still more environmentally-friendly than the most sustainable meat eater’s diet.
- Besides emissions, vegans created only 25% of the dietary impact on land use, 46% on water use, 27% on water pollution, and 34% on biodiversity compared to high meat-eaters. The greater use of land for meat production results in more deforestation and less carbon stored in trees.
- Higher meat-eaters create a 20-Year Global Warming Potential that is 5.1 times greater than people who eat no meat at all. Note: The 20-Year Global Warming Potential (GWP) examines the impact of different gases in the atmosphere and the amount of heat they retain.
- The production of meat requires high amounts of fertilizers which are usually produced from fossil fuels.
- Eating a low meat diet also has benefits, causing about 70% of the impact of high-meat diets, so just cutting back on meat can also make a difference
The authors of this study concluded that “Despite substantial variation due to where and how food is produced, the relationship between environmental impact and animal-based food consumption is clear and should prompt the reduction of the latter.” (8)
A study from February 2023 illustrated that a vegan diet has 44% less total environmental impact than a Mediterranean diet, despite the fact that the content of animal products in the Mediterranean diet was low at 10.6% of total calorie intake. Even small amounts of eggs, dairy and fish in a diet have substantial influence on the environment. Researchers concluded that minimal to moderate dietary content of animal-sourced foods significantly affects the environmental footprint of a diet and reducing the consumption of these foods can lead to significant ecological benefits. (9)
Are There Any Solutions For This Grim Outlook for Our Planet and Our Species?
It has taken decades of research and monitoring to demonstrate without a shadow of a doubt that we inhabitants of the planet Earth are heading for disaster. Though the scientific conclusions and predictions are unquestionable, it has been difficult to get a consensus among the world’s varied populations that everyone needs to work together to stop our descent towards the point of no return for the future of our world. This lack is likely due in a major way to the realization that any action to save our prospects and those of our descendants must include a sweeping change in our own lives, not to mention the power of the big businesses involved in the production of food to conceal, confuse and refute results of the investigations looking into climate change. Nobody likes change, especially when it comes to the very personal choices we make every day in what foods we are going to eat. Our food preferences rely on many factors. They originate in our cultures and our traditions as well as from the comfort we derive from consuming our favourite foods. It will take a very strong incentive to push us as a cohesive group towards eating for our planet’s future.
But there is hope. Recently a digital article was published in “Policy Options”, the digital magazine of the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) regarding how best we might save our threatened planet for ourselves and the human beings and animals that come after us. This Canadian magazine offers insight into the discussions taking place among key decision-makers, addressing policy issues of importance to all Canadians with the mission of improving public policy in Canada “by generating research, providing insight and influencing debate on current and emerging policy issues facing Canadians and their governments”. (10)
The article lays out the challenges that human activities have created for our environment and examines how they might be overcome. It cites the grave fact that the effects of agriculture alone could single-handedly cause a 1°C rise in the global temperature of the earth by the year 2100, bringing the Earth more than halfway to the limit of the Paris Agreement, enough to exceed their objectives to “ hold the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” (11).
Setting the environment aside for a moment, the authors point out that eating animal-sourced foods also has enormous effects on our health. For example, the consumption of meat is associated with increased risks of some cancers (12) as well as the risk of diseases such as type-2 diabetes, stroke and colorectal cancer (13). Since the Canadian government funds healthcare, much of the high costs of chronic disease care is shouldered by all Canadian citizens through taxes. (10)
This article raises possible solutions to this situation. One way might be through taxing meat with a specific amount of tax for each type of meat indexed according to its effect on the environment. For example, the production of meat from ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats and deer) results in higher emissions than poultry and this could be reflected in the amount of tax levied. Studies have examined the potential impact of a meat tax and calculated that it could result in between 6 and 20% reductions in emissions. However, a meat tax would definitely run into roadblocks. Many people would consider it a challenge to their cultural practices as well as to their right to be free to make their own choices and it could impact disadvantaged households more than affluent ones. (10)
Fortunately, there are other ideas being discussed. Some examples include subsidies towards the purchases of plant-sourced foods; the establishment of incentives for the creation of new recipes with low environmental impact and for the development of new, less environmentally damaging meat substitutes; the installation of regulations for restaurants to guarantee the availability of sufficient number of plant-sourced meals whose costs are in line with meat-based meals; and the formation of quotas for food producers that compel them to increase their production of plant-based products. Ideas such as these could encourage more sustainable eating. (10)
However, the main takeaway from this article is that the Canadian government, and likely many other governments around the world, are finally beginning to take a stand and are looking for possible solutions for this problem. This very act alone will lend credence to the information that people are hearing in the news and send out the message that indeed there is a forbidding cloud looming on the near horizon and it’s time to do something about it. Many people have already turned to a more Earth-friendly diet. If more can be persuaded, perhaps we will see a turning point in the decisions we make every day towards the consideration of the health of our planet in our actions.
1 Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Guizzardi, D. et al. Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. Nat Food 2. 2021;198–209. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00225-9
2 Xu, X., Sharma, P., Shu, S. et al. Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods. Nat Food 2. 2021; 724–732. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00358-x.
4 Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser. Land Use. 2013. Published online at OurWorldInData.org.
5 Discover Half-Earth. Half-Earth Project. https://www.half-earthproject.org/discover-half-earth/
6 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Press Release: Our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. February 3, 2021. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/our-global-food-system-primary-driver-biodiversity-loss
7 Rowntree, J.E., Stanley, P.L., Maciel, I.C.F., Thorbecke, M., Rosenzweig, S.T., Hancock, D.W., Guzman, A., Raven, M.R. Ecosystem Impacts and Productive Capacity of a Multi-Species Pastured Livestock System. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 202; 4: 544984. Doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2020.544984.
8 Scarborough, P., Clark, M., Cobiac, L. et al. Vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters in the UK show discrepant environmental impacts. Nat Food 4. July 2023; 565–574. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-023-00795-w.
9 Filippin ,D., Sarni, A.R., Rizzo, G., Baroni, L. Environmental impact of two plant-based, isocaloric and isoproteic diets: the vegan diet vs. the Mediterranean diet. Int J Environ Res Public Health. February 2023; 20(5):3797. Doi:10.3390/ijerph20053797.
13 Springmann, M., Clark, M., Mason-D’Croz, D. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562. 2018;519–525. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0