New year, new goals, new resolutions and Veganuary. This 31-day pledge to remove meat and dairy from our lifestyles has risen in popularity over the last few years, resulting in over ½ million people signing up in 2021, across 209 countries (1). This rise in popularity has been linked to ethical, environmental and health reasons as we understand and learn more about the impact of our diets. Here, I intend to explore some of the facts and figures behind environmental motivation and what ‘eating for the planet’ really looks like.
- Eating plant-based has been quoted to be the “single biggest way” to reduce environmental impact on the earth and cutting out meat and dairy could cut a person’s carbon footprint by 73% (2).
- For one person, not eating meat for breakfast or lunch will save 1.3 metric tonnes per year (3).
Breaking it down, meat and dairy are often associated with high environmental footprints due to:
1. Deforestation and loss of ecosystems
Trees act as ‘carbon sinks’, absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis and removing it from the atmosphere. Approximately 1/3rd of CO2 released from burning fossil fuels is absorbed by forests each year (4). Trees are made up of 50% carbon, therefore burning forests to clear land for animals releases the forest’s carbon stored in the atmosphere as CO2, whilst reducing the planet’s carbon sink resource.
- Cutting and burning of forests is responsible for 15% of global GHGs per year3 (equivalent to emissions from cars, HGVs, aircraft and shipping all combine (5).
- Clearing land for crops, livestock and grazing is the cause of 80% of global deforestation.
Industrial meat production is the single biggest cause of deforestation and habitat loss (7). Converting land to agriculture reduces biodiversity and species abundance and thereby reduces the ecosystem’s resilience to change. Ecosystem loss is not just about losing an aesthetic environment, critical components of the Earth’s system are lost. We are living on an increasingly farmed planet, with half of all fertile land now used for farmland (5) and for every person on this planet there are 30 farmed animals (3).
Allowing tropical land currently used for livestock to revert to forest could mitigate more than half of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases (3). Eating a plant-based diet would allow 75% of the farmland (an area the size of the US, China, Europe and Australia combined) we use today to revert back to a natural state.
2. Best short term results – methane
CO2, methane and nitrous oxides are the most commonly discussed when looking at global climate change impact. However, it may be worth concentrating on reducing methane emissions for more imminent mitigation measures. Methane gas has a 34x global warming potential (GWP) than CO2, with an atmospheric lifetime of 12-15 years compared to CO2’s 300 to 1,000 years (3). Therefore, it has a more potent GWP for a shorter period of time. Reducing our methane emissions is the fastest opportunity we have to immediately slow global warming between now and 2040 (8). Nitrous oxides are even more potent at 310x GWP than CO2. Livestock is the leading source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
3. Tropical rainforest tipping points
Whilst all trees have climate benefits, tropical forests trap greater volumes of CO2 whilst also influencing local and regional water cycles. Evaporation from tropical forests results in thick clouds, reflecting sunlight back to space (a cooling effect). The Amazon, for example, produces half its own rainfall in this way which keeps the rainforest healthy. Excess deforestation continuing at the current rate will break this cycle and the forest will no longer be able to sustain itself. Professors Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre (9) warned deforestation of just 20-25% of the Amazon could be the tipping point after which a series of positive chain reactions would convert the forest into a savanna-like ecosystem. Currently, around 17% of the Amazon has been deforested and dry seasons are already hotter and longer (9). Prevention is possible through reforestation and reducing land area required for cropland and pasture.
Exploring the plant-based diet
With increasing awareness and concerns over the rapidly warming planet and the popularity of Veganuary increasing, the food and restaurant sector have rallied and in 2021 launched over 825 new plant-based menus and products for Veganuary (1). However, how do we ensure by reducing meat from our diet we are not replacing it with other products of an equal environmental footprint!
1. Emergence of plant ‘fake’ meats
Many plant-based companies have started targeting some of the major climate-damaging foods with the launch of new products, fake meats and plant-based dairy products. Yet, just how climate-friendly are some of these emerging vegan alternatives.
Although companies, like the Beyond Meat burger claim to use 99% less water, 93% less land and 90% less fossil fuel emissions than a beef burger, these claims are based on 3rd party estimates of emissions (10).
Plant-based meant alternatives have been found to produce the same emissions as chicken, five times that of legumes and vegetables. So while they go a step towards reducing carbon footprints they are not the ‘most climate-friendly thing to do’ (10).
So while replacing our meat with plant-based alternatives does reduce our footprint and an imitated beef burger has a lower footprint than the real thing, they are not the most ‘climate friendly’.
2. Plant-based vs locally sourced
Another common ‘eating for the planet’ concept is to eat local over plant-based to reduce the footprint of our food. However, an Oxford study published last year found transport accounted for <10% of a food product’s overall footprint and so less meat is nearly always better than sustainable meat to reduce carbon footprint (11).
Eating locally tackles the 10% transport emissions, however even if you eat 100% local it would have less impact than choosing a vegan diet for just one day a week (11).
Eating local would have a greater impact if most of our food was transported by plane, which emits 50% more emissions than transport by sea (11). However, in reality, very little is.
Although it is difficult to identify which foods have travelled by air as they are rarely labelled, avoiding these foods will reduce the carbon footprint of your plate. A general rule is to avoid foods that have a very short shelf life despite having travelled a long way. Some fruit and vegetables, including berries, beans, asparagus etc often fall into this category. Eating local (and therefore seasonal) fruit and vegetables can also have health benefits as well! Providing us with the vitamins and minerals which are relevant to our bodies for that time of year.
3. Moving away from binary language
Finally, there is often a misconception about plant-based. Sometimes, everything can seem very black and white and one failure can then lead to just giving up. Plant-based is not the same as vegan.
Plant-based: typically referring to diet alone, plant-based indicates a diet of either entirely or mostly plant foods. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to cut out all other food groups. However, it is a diet where actual plants come first e.g. fresh produce, whole grains, plant-derived fats, nuts, legumes, and seeds.
Vegan: reaches beyond diet and is a lifestyle choice. This involves living in a way that avoids consuming or exploiting animals as much as realistically possible.
So, while vegan diets are plant-based, plant-based diets are not necessarily vegan – confusing!
Plant-based diets are generally considered best for the planet and also for people’s health (according to the World Health Organisation!) whilst also being forgiving and adaptable to an individual’s lifestyle.
So – eating for the planet!
However, if we really want to eat for the planet, when reducing meat on our plate we need to think about what we replace it with. Reconnecting with the food on our plate, understanding its components, eating more local and seasonal and moving away from the simplistic vegan, meat-eater binary.