Plant-based food has rapidly grown in popularity over the past decades. We’ve gone from hardly having any vegetarian (let alone vegan) options in restaurants to having separate menus for plant-based meals.
A plant-based diet is known to be healthier for us, but is it also healthier for the planet?
Plant-based food is largely more environmentally friendly, as the production of meat and animal products is vastly more damaging to the environment. The greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock farming are greater than any farmed vegetation.
You don’t even have to commit to going completely meat-free to make a difference. Just cut out meat for one day a week or participate in a vegan challenge for a month to cut down your carbon footprint!
Is changing to a plant-based diet better for the environment?
Changing to a plant-based diet isn’t just good for our health – it’s better for the environment, according to many scientists and environmental campaigners.
While a plant-based diet is far from perfect, it’s far better than the alternative. Most people who have a plant-based or plant-rich diet are healthier and have a reduced carbon footprint.
There are three main plant-based diets you can choose from a vegetarian diet, a plant-based diet, and a vegan diet.
A vegetarian diet means you don’t eat any meat, but you can still consume animal products like milk, eggs, and more. A plant-based diet excludes dairy and eggs. A vegan diet excludes dairy and eggs but also comes with a lifestyle change of seeking to exclude animal exploitation and cruelty.
A plant-based diet is a vegan diet, but the vegan lifestyle requires more commitment to avoiding animal byproducts in all manner of possessions, from clothing to beauty and skincare.
You may find plant-based (pb) and vegan (ve or vg) on menus, which can indicate whether or not animal products have been used in the creation of the meal (such as animal fats and oils). Many places now have a separate vegan menu to accommodate plant-based diets and vegan lifestyles.
Even if you don’t switch to veganism completely, committing to just a month of veganism by going on a plant-based diet can make an impact. Every January, thousands of people go vegan for January, known as Veganuary.
In 2020, Veganuary had approximately 350,000 people take part from the UK, and a researcher at the University of Oxford estimated that the greenhouse gas emissions saved would match the equivalent of removing 160,000 cars from the road.
Organizations like Greenpeace also recommend going plant-rich – this doesn’t stop you from consuming meat and dairy but instead encourages you to switch to a plant-rich diet with plant-based food. Making an effort to have meat-free Mondays can be just as impactful as making wider changes.
How does switching to a plant-based diet help the environment?
Switching to a plant-based diet helps the environment by reducing methane emissions, deforestation, carbon emissions, and land use.
Without widespread measures pushing for regenerative agriculture, many livestock farms prioritize getting as much produce out of the farm as possible. The use of synthetic fertilizers and poor land management practices harm the land by depleting the soil of nutrients.
A plant-based diet supports more sustainable and eco-friendly companies and reduces reliance on livestock farming.
Plant-based proteins like soy, quinoa, chickpeas, and lentils are responsible for around 70 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent amount of beef. They also use less land.
Coupled with searching for organic, local produce, a plant-based diet can have a massive impact on the local environment as well as your health.
What effects do plant-based diets have on the environment?
Plant-based diets help the environment by:
- Preserving water resources
- Reducing water consumption
- Providing more vegan food options
- Decreasing ecological footprints
- Preserving the atmosphere
- Reducing deforestation
- Conserving the diversity of wildlife and plants
It’s not easy to track all of the effects plant-based diets have on the environment, but the biggest effect is on the livestock farming industry.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, meat and dairy account for around 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these emissions come from cattle, which are raised for beef, milk, manure, and draft power. Cattle represent 65% of livestock emissions.
Switching to vegan beef burgers and plant-based milk reduces reliance on the cattle industry. This also encourages companies to invest more in plant-based diets, further reducing reliance on cattle.
Livestock farming is also responsible for around 70% of the world’s deforestation, not just to create land for the livestock but also to cultivate soy for feeding them.
Why does not eating meat and other animal products help the environment?
Not eating meat and other animal products help the environment by reducing the number of greenhouse gasses released. Livestock contributes to greenhouse gas emissions by raising livestock, decaying manure, using synthetic fertilizers, and destroying forest ecosystems.
The meat industry is one of the most unsustainable industries, using a disproportionate amount of land for the number of calories produced. Agricultural practices are largely unsustainable, such as monocropping which depletes soil nutrition, and the use of pesticides that could be handled with a natural ecosystem.
While meat contains more proteins than whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and other foods, meat-based diets are high in red and processed meats.
Per kilogram of food product, beef is responsible for almost 100 kg of greenhouse gas emissions, compared to just 0.43 kg from nuts. Peas, another vegan source of protein, produce 0.98 kg of emissions.
What are the environmental disadvantages of a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is known to have some disadvantages for health, but what about environmental disadvantages?
Some plant-based foods have big carbon footprints. These are usually due to shipping the food from country to country, such as more exotic fruit to places like the UK. This is why it’s important to buy locally-sourced food – you cut down the carbon footprint of the food and it’s often healthier as well.
Another issue comes with foods sold out of season to meet demand. Buying fruit like strawberries in the winter means that they’ve either been cultivated with an intense amount of light and heat to make up for the lack of seasonal change or they’ve been shipped from abroad.
Producing almond milk and rice milk requires a lot of water. While dairy milk ranks highest for emissions, land use, and water use, the plant-based alternatives aren’t always as amazing as we think.
Rice milk produces the most emissions per glass, while almond milk uses half as much water as dairy milk. Comparatively, soy milk and oat milk use hardly any land and water, though they do produce more emissions than almond milk.
What is one way that a plant-based diet is not beneficial for the environment?
Not all plant-based products are good for the environment – they’re just better than the livestock industry.
Soy production is known to also cause deforestation, usually due to creating the animal feed, but also because it’s the biggest and most well-known protein source for plant-based diets.
Soy is cultivated for:
- Animal feed
- Plant-based burgers (including Impossible Burger)
- Soy milk
- Soy yogurt
- Vegan meat alternatives (including vegan sausages)
77% of soy is fed to livestock for meat and dairy production, with 7% allocated for human food products. The rest is used for biofuels and oils, including vegetable oils.
Can a plant-based diet fight global warming?
Yes, a plant-based diet can fight global warming. By cutting down on the number of greenhouse gasses associated with meat and international shipping, we can make a big impact on the heating up of the ozone layer.
According to Stanford University, “phasing out animal agriculture [is] our best and most immediate chance to reverse the trajectory of climate change”.
If we were to phase out animal agriculture over the next 15 years, it would have the same effect as a 68% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions up to the year 2100.
While this is highly unlikely to happen, every swap to a plant-based diet has an impact. Even if you participated in 52 Meatless Mondays, you’d make a bigger difference than doing nothing at all.
Some of the best ways to fight global warming without committing to a completely plant-based diet are:
- Find out what you can buy locally
- Check what food is in season
- Commit to one meat-free day a week
- Buy organic food
- Reduce food waste
What would happen to the environment if everyone went plant-based?
According to researchers from the University of Oxford in 2016, if everyone ate less meat and relied more on fruit and vegetables, food-related greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by two-thirds. This would also have a massive impact on the health of most people.
The study involved four dietary scenarios: a typical diet now, a scenario based on global dietary guidelines with the minimum amounts of fruit and vegetables, a vegetarian scenario, and a vegan scenario.
By eating the minimum amounts of fruit and vegetables with less reliance on meat and sugar, by 2050 food-related emissions would be cut by 29%. Everyone switching to a vegetarian diet would cut food-related emissions by 63%, and a vegan diet would cut emissions by 70%.