From clean energy to reusable shopping bags, experts and communities alike are weighing in on how we live more sustainable to mitigate our impact on the environment. And it turns out, the biggest daily change you can make is to your diet. The question of how our food impacts the environment has been in the forefront of recent conversation. And eating a plant-based diet can not only have major health benefits but can also help the planet. In fact, going plant-based may be the “single best way to reduce your impact on Earth,” according to Joseph Poole, Oxford University’s lead researcher for the most comprehensive assessment of farming’s impact on the environment.
How does eating a plant-based diet benefit the environment?
Carbon is emitted throughout the process of raising a land animal, or tilling the soil to produce a feed crop. According to the EPA, this accounts for only 9% of US carbon emissions. But carbon is emitted throughout the entire process of animal agriculture. From making fertilizer for feed crops, clearing land, to lighting barns and transporting animals, the carbon footprint of animal products is actually between 18-25%. By eliminating these products from your diet, you can reduce your carbon footprint by about 40%, which is over one metric ton per year!
Almost 80% of land deforested in the Amazon is now used as a cattle pasture. If we could reduce the amount of land required to feed ourselves we could contribute to the restoration native forests, prairie land, and natural habitats of threatened and endangered species. Habitat loss by agriculture is one of the top reasons animals wind up the Endangered Species list. And Poole’s Oxford study shows that global farmland use could be reduced by 75% if we gave up meat and dairy!
According to the FAO, 95% percent of our food is sourced directly or indirectly from the first few inches of Earth, called topsoil. Proper management is essential for the lasting ability to grow food and to continue to nourish the population. Animal agriculture supports unhealthy practices of soil maintenance, leading to its degradation in the future. This happens by monocropping corn and soy for feed, applying heavy doses of pesticides and fertilizers, feeding these chemical-laden crops to animals, then spreading the chemical-laden waste on fields -- producing bacteria resistant and ammonia contaminated soils for next season. The cycle is destructive, but by eating an organic plant-based diet, you can reduce the amount of harmful chemicals that are used each year and contribute to healthier soil in the future.
Animal agriculture affects our water sources, too. Remember what we said about pesticides and fertilizers? Over-applying these chemicals to feed crops allows them to seep into the water table and leech into our freshwater sources, like rivers, streams and lakes, after rainfall. This contaminates our drinking water. Animal manure can also negatively impact our water system. Manure is often kept in watery ponds on industrial farms, but when overfull, it can seep into clean water and contaminate it with nitrogen and phosphorus. These two pollutants have been called the main threat to US Coastal Waters. Why? They produce algal blooms, depleting oxygen in the water and ultimately killing marine life. Relying on responsibly grown plants to eat can reduce the growing problem of fertilizer runoff.
The production of meat, eggs, and dairy require a large amount of our country’s natural resources to make a profit. Water and land are the two most coveted resources and buy switching to plant-based eating, about 260 million acres of land could be restored and 14 trillion gallons of water could be saved annually. Land that is unsuitable to grow conventional crops due to drought or poor soil quality could be restored prairie land and become a farm for wind or solar energy, further decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels.
Keep in mind, this article is not exhaustive of all the ways a plant-based diet can impact the environment. We’re seeing a large wave of research conducted on how animal agriculture affects our climate and environment. And if you’re not sure you can make the jump to 100% plant-based, that’s understandable. Making a big lifestyle change can be scary and it doesn't have to be done in one day.
Get our 7 tips for whole food plant-based beginners here.
By Monica Brown
Monica is a Food Systems graduate from the University of Minnesota who has a passion for educating other around healthy living and sustainability. Currently enrolled in the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, she will soon receive her Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate.
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