There are three main reasons people choose to eat a vegan diet:

  1. To improve their health
  2. To protect animals
  3. To protect the environment

This article discusses the latter.  Because although the meat and dairy industry continues to lobby for meat and dairy to be included in the healthy food pyramid and fund university professors to write articles disclaiming red meat consumption’s impact on the environment, the evidence that plant-based eating can save the planet is now too significant to be ignored.

We have not always eaten so much meat

For most of human history, meat was a luxury few could afford to consume regularly.  The Paleo diet, which is based on the principle that pre-agricultural folk had most of their food supplied by ‘man the hunter’, conveniently forgot about ‘woman the gatherer’.  An in-depth piece in National Geographic states:

“The real Paleolithic diet, though, wasn’t all meat and marrow. It’s true that hunter-gatherers around the world crave meat more than any other food and usually get around 30 percent of their annual calories from animals. But most also endure lean times when they eat less than a handful of meat each week. New studies suggest that more than a reliance on meat in ancient human diets fuelled the brain’s expansion.

Year-round observations confirm that hunter-gatherers often have dismal success as hunters. The Hadza and Kung bushmen of Africa, for example, fail to get meat more than half the time when they venture forth with bows and arrows. This suggests it was even harder for our ancestors who didn’t have these weapons. “Everybody thinks you wander out into the savanna and there are antelopes everywhere, just waiting for you to bonk them on the head,” says paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks of George Washington University, an expert on the Dobe Kung of Botswana. No one eats meat all that often, except in the Arctic, where Inuit and other groups traditionally got as much as 99 percent of their calories from seals, narwhals, and fish.”

Look at any pre-Second World War cookbook, and you will see that Sunday’s roast provided the meat for most of the remaining days of the week.  As living standards have improved, meat consumption has increased, to the point where many families have meat every day of the week, something our ancestors, save for the extraordinarily rich, could only dream about.

How does meat and dairy consumption damage the environment?

By 2050 we will need to feed 9.7 billion people on a planet that is already groaning under the strain of so many humans.  The good news is population growth is slowing and is expected to reach its peak around 2100.  The bad news is that peak will constitute 11 billion souls.

Currently, 26% of global emissions are generated by food production, and 56% of food production emissions comes from animals.  From excreting methane gas and depleting water supplies, to deforestation, high meat and dairy consumption provides little benefit to the planet.  But if most of us switched to a mainly plant-based diet, the earth would have room to breathe again.

A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report states that 26% of the earth’s terrestrial surface is used for livestock grazing and a further one-third of the planet’s arable land is occupied by livestock feed crop cultivation.

If we want to tackle global warming, we must all eat less meat and dairy.

How veganism helps the environment

“Going vegan is probably the biggest handle an individual has on reducing his ecological footprint,” stated Oxford scientist Joseph Poore in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel. “The benefit is far greater than buying an electric car or flying less.”

Aside from the fact vegans are not producing anything that comes from a methane excreting animal, the reason plant-based diets are so good for the planet is that more people can be fed on less land.  Although the cultivated cropland used to feed meat-eaters and vegans is roughly similar, those eating a vegan diet do not require grazing areas to be utilised.

To put it another way, a person eating a standard British diet requires around 2.67 acres of land to feed them for a year.  But most of that land is not used to nourish them, it is needed to feed the animals they are eating.  Vegans, by contrast, use only around 1/6 of an acre per year.  If everyone in the world consumed a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet, we would have the equivalent of nearly five billion football fields worth of arable land which could be reforested, given over to wildlife, and be used to feed the growing population.

Going vegan just made a lot more sense.

Sources

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8375951/
https://www.antaisce.org/balance-claims-agri-debate
https://theconversation.com/yes-eating-meat-affects-the-environment-but-cows-are-not-killing-the-climate-94968
https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production#global-meat-production
https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2019.html
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/is-the-livestock-industry-destroying-the-planet-11308007/
https://www.dw.com/en/do-vegans-help-prevent-climate-change/a-49992593

Which diet makes best use of farmland? You might be surprised.