Are Vegan And Vegetarian Diets Beneficial To The Environment?

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Dietary choices of people have a major environmental impact. Image credit: Smolaw/Shutterstock.com
  • Avocados are a popular food worldwide, but growing them is contributing to water shortages in places like Chile.
  • A vegetarian diet produces 2.5 X fewer carbon emissions compared with a meat diet.
  • Meat production comprises 30% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, but eating local meat may be better for the environment than eating fruit grown far away.

Around the world, people follow varying diets. Some are omnivores, eating everything available to humans, while others avoid certain meats in accordance with the guidelines of their religion. Some people will still eat meat but only if the animal is killed in a certain fashion, and others avoid meat and animal products altogether. Vegans and vegetarians avoid animal meat altogether but still have major differences in their diets.

In recent times, there has been a lot of discussions on the environmental impacts of peoples' diets. A section of scientists have recommended avoiding meat-based diets altogether. According to them, vegan and vegetarian diets do less harm to the environment. This article take a look at what scientists have to say about diets and their connections to the environment.

What Is A Vegan Diet?

A vegan meal. Image credit: Magnadatka/Shutterstock.com

A vegan is someone who does not eat or use any type of animal product, including foods such as honey or eggs. Vegans also avoid using products that are animal derived, such as leather shoes, and they shun those that may be tested on animals for safety, such as mainstream makeup. Entertainment that involves the use of animals, like some circuses, is also not attended by vegans. 

What Is A Vegetarian Diet?

An Indian vegetarian meal. Image credit: Arving Balaraman/Shutterstock.com

Someone who is a vegetarian follows a similar diet and does not eat meat, chicken or fish. Some vegetarians will also avoid stock made from animals, as well as gelatine and animal rennet.  Vegetarians are known to eat other animal products such as cheese and eggs, however, which is how they differ from vegans. 

Reasons For Adopting Vegan Or Vegetarian Diets

People have varying reasons for following these specific diets. Some are vegans or vegetarians due to religious reasons as stated above, and some simply do not like the taste of meat or fish. Many people shun animal products in an effort to live healthier lives, and a certain group follows these practices because they believe it is better for the planet. In fact, becoming a vegan or vegetarian to save the Earth is a top reason people switch their eating habits. According to a report on BBC.com, about 35% of people who plan on giving up meat in the future in the UK, say they will be doing so in order to help the environment. 

Avoiding the consumption of meat is often better for the environment in the long run, but there are also facets to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle that are harder on the planet than you might think. There are both pros and cons to being a vegan or vegetarian and their impact on the environment. Here is a look at some arguments on both sides of the equation.  

Pros

Aerial view of cattle grazing pasture in deforested area of Amazon. Image credit: Paralaxis/Shutterstock.com

As Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies the environmental impacts of food stated to BBC.com

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.”

There is ample evidence to support this statement. According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian diet produces 2.5 X fewer carbon emissions compared with a meat diet. In fact, the food production process for meat, from farm-to-plate is said to comprise 30% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. By eating vegetarian food for a year, you can contribute towards saving the same amount of carbon emissions that a small family car produces in six months. 

Land use is also an issue. The Vegetarian Society states that a meat eater needs two-and-a-half times the amount of land to produce their food, compared with a vegetarian or vegan. 

In addition to this, water use is at stake. Plants need water to grow but surprisingly, producing meat for your dinner plate also takes up large amounts of H2O. An 8 0z chicken breast is said to need over 542 litres of water to be produced, from giving the chicken water to drink, to housing it, slaughtering it, and preparing it to be shipped to your local store. 

When you avoid consuming food from the ocean, you also help to keep ocean ecosystems healthy, and avoid contributing to problems of overfishing and bycatch-the capture of unwanted sea life by accident when fishing. According to the World Wildlife Organization, overfishing the world’s oceans has tripled in the last century, and one third of the world’s assessed fisheries are now being pushed beyond their biological limits, as declared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

In these ways, being a vegan or vegetarian can be beneficial for the environment.  These diets reduce carbon emissions, help conserve water, and can improve levels of fish in the ocean, while returning balance to aquatic ecosystems.  

Cons

Eating local is always good for the environment. Image credit: Arina P. Habich/Shutterstock.com

Becoming a vegan or a vegetarian is not always as beneficial for the environment as it may seem on the surface, however. It is true that, overall, not eating meat is most often much better for the environment, but it can be important to consider which foods you consume when avoiding animal products. 

In one study cited by BBC.com, people who followed a vegan diet actually had a larger carbon footprint than the average meat-eater. Two vegans in Italy ate so much fruit- 15.4 to 17.6lb (7-8kg) per day- that their diet was having a greater environmental impact than that of a typical meat-eater. Fruit often needs to be transported great distances by plane in order to get to your local store. In this way, going vegan could actually raise your carbon emissions. 

There is also the issue of water used to produce plant food, just as there is in producing meat. Avocados provide a good example. This fruit grows naturally in warm, wet climates. It has become a very popular food in many parts of the globe. There are problems with this, however. Just one mature avocado tree growing in California’s hot, dry climate is said to require 46 gallons (209 litres) of water each day in the summer, in order to meet its needs. Avocados are also often bathed in hot water for an hour after they are harvested. This controls decay and insect infestations, but it takes up a lot of water resources. In places where avocados are grown for commercial consumption and are exported, such as in Peru and Chile, increased global demand for avocados is said to be causing people to extract water illegally from rivers just to keep up. This is contributing to local water shortages in these areas.  

There are also issues of deforestation and problems caused by the use of commercial fertilizers. In Mexico, pressure to increase avocado production is causing illegal deforestation, as farmers create space for more avocado plantations. In general artificial fertilizers account for 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into the atmosphere when it is produced, and nitrous oxide once it hits the fields. In these ways, when someone is a vegan or vegetarian, they could be contributing to environmental problems they might not have considered. 

Finding Balance

Flexitarian diets are becoming more popular as a result of health and climate change reasons. Image credit: Jon Lyall/Shutterstock.com

While there are drawbacks to becoming a vegan or vegetarian, many studies do show that not eating meat and fish is generally better for the environment. Obviously, what you replace your meat and animal products with is important. Eating locally grown food as much as possible, and foods that are in season can be best for the environment. 

Some countries may do well to alter the plants that are grown locally for human consumption in order to make local eating of non-meat products easier. For example, according to the Vegan Society, the United Kingdom has good conditions to grow plant protein for human consumption but only uses 16 % of its land for this, currently. This results in lentils, chickpeas, and quinoa being imported to the UK from far away places like Canada and Brazil. Changing what farmers grow locally, if possible, can help to reduce the carbon footprint of going vegetarian or vegan. 

Another answer can be choosing to follow a flexitarian diet. This means that you are essentially a vegetarian, but that you do eat meat and animal products from time to time. 

No foods are completely devoid of an impact on the environment, and some do more damage than others. If you are truly interested in lowering the impact on the environment of what you eat in the greatest way possible, it is important to do your research on individual foods to see where they stand. A balanced diet is always the key to human health, and that of the planet. 

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