Studies were done and the results are in. The most eco-friendly diet is a plant-based diet.
It’s a scary idea to many, but a necessary push for anyone concerned about their carbon footprint. Luckily, everyone’s plant-based diet will look different depending on your dietary needs, access, location, and a whole host of other personal choices.
This post explores our problem with meat, the impact of a switch to veganism or vegetarianism, and take a look at why anyone claiming just one way of eating is just plain wrong.
I have a personal ethical stance on the treatment and consumption of animal products. This is a more practical, data-driven look at the issue that only briefly talks ethics re: cultural differences. I understand ethics are central to most people’s beliefs around meat, but I ask you keep an open mind and make any and all dialogue respectful.
An eco-friendly diet and our problem with meat
The modern Western world and its industries have an unhealthy relation with the animal products we consume. Here the focus is on meat, as I’ll talk more about the relative impact of vegetarianism (ie. some animal products) below. Here are just a few of the issues coming from our out-of-control consumption:
We’ve distanced ourselves from our consumption
Any time we do this, it’s a dangerous precedence for consuming without awareness. When we’re dealing with living beings, the results are horrific. We all know the horrible practices going on to get our meat and animal products. Still, it’s very easy to ignore when we’re not physically involved with the gross bits.
Our practices are environmentally dangerous
All aspects of large-scale commercial farming are highly unsustainable.
“A lifecycle analysis conducted by EWG that took into account the production and distribution of 20 common agricultural products found that red meat such as beef and lamb is responsible for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains” (source).
This comes from the range of factors needed to sell as much meat as we consume. Growing their food, destroying swaths of land for farms, pesticides, fertilizer, etc.
We’re consuming unhealthy amounts
Drawdown (affiliate link) tells us the unfortunate truth behind this. On average, people from the USA and Canada consume almost twice as much protein daily than is recommended. “Eating too much… can lead to certain cancers, strokes, and heart disease.”
So we know meat and the way we process and consume it is a problem. What’s the answer – and is it really worth it to make a switch to a more eco-friendly diet?
The global impact of an eco-friendly diet
From an environmental perspective, making the swap toward a plant-based diet is one of the best ways you can reduce your carbon footprint!
A University of Oxford study found that veganism beat out vegetarianism in its emissions-reduction ability. But maybe not as much as you think.
Based on a worldwide transition to a different diet between 2016 and 2050, the study suggested a 70% reduction of food-related GHG emissions, while a vegetarian diet followed closely behind with a 63% reduction.
A plant-based diet is the obvious answer from a carbon emissions perspective. A very rough estimate from Drawdown* (it’s hard to pinpoint such a broad, ever-changing set of data) says we could expect 66.11 gigatons of reduced CO2 by 2050. That’s
if 50 percent of the world’s population restricts their diet to a healthy 2,500 calories per day and reduce meat consumption overall… at least 26.7 gigatons of emissions could be avoided from dietary change alone. If avoided deforestation from land use change is included, an additional 39.3 gigatons of emissions could be avoided.
For me, this is all great news. Sustainable veganism (more on that below) is clearly the answer, but while veganism is accessible and possible for many, for others it isn’t.
Knowing vegetarianism has a similar impact (ethics aside) is important when we consider the negative implications of global veganism. You can read the full article about the issues around global veganism here, but it boils down to foreign demand making staple crops really expensive.
Additionally, the travel miles around food is a huge source of carbon emissions!
It’s also critical to note that white veganism is rarely “cruelty-free”. Workers in the global south are often exploited, paid very little for back-breaking work and having their lands destroyed for the US’s mangoes. As one article notes:
Food supply chains and the agriculture industry is marked by the common presence of forced labor, exploitation of workers, hazardous and extreme working conditions, child labor, lack of labor rights protecting agricultural workers and extremely low wages.
Why veganism isn’t the only answer to an eco-friendly diet
The plant-based/vegan/vegetarian/eco-friendly diet conversation is often a very white, western-centric argument. Food is such a culturally-specific, tightly-held notion that proclaiming all meat consumption is unethical, immoral, and unsustainable is dangerous.
Is the modern, Westernized overconsumption of animal protein through factory farms and ecologically-destructive practices really the same as the holistic farming experience of Indigenous people who live and depend on the land much more literally than most?
This whole post called Decolonizing Veganism is so worth a read. It touches on disability, race, socio-economic status and all the ways those intersect to make veganism more or less possible.
If we’re focusing specifically on Indigenous culture (as otherwise this post would turn into a literal book), this quote really spoke to me:
Without recognizing the role settler colonialism plays in the lives of both Indigenous communities as well as animals, veganism often fails to address the role colonization plays in animal mistreatment. A fight for decolonization is vital in the struggle to dismantle systems of oppression, and vegans must reconcile with that instead of choosing to target Indigenous communities for their supposed “cruelty.”
Pre-colonialism, many cultures formed around the practice of animal consumption in a respectful and necessary way. Is it our job to eradicate culture based on our subjective ethics and our learned cultural responses?
Is it our right to make unsustainable choices for others based on racist, ableist, classist ideas?
No. Still, creating access to fresh, local non-meat options is incredibly important, particularly in places where that option doesn’t exist. But force must be removed from the equation.
An eco-friendly diet should always be a choice.
- A massive switch toward an eco-friendly is necessary. It’s one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions and halt our destruction of the planet. To me, it’s an almost impossible issue to tackle. It would start with education (teaching people the impact of meat as well as great local alternatives to supplement a plant-based meal) and forcing the accessibility issue (read more about how you can help improve food access in your community).
- Reducing animal products is one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon emissions. People who ate an average amount of meat had a diet that produced 5.63 kgCO2e/day, while a vegetarian diet on produced 3.81 kgCO2e/day. Veganism?2.89 kgCO2e/day. Check out more info from this study.
- As always, nuance and sensitivity is key. Has anyone shoving a pamphlet at you on the sidewalk ever actually changed your mind about anything? No! Of course not! Being open to other lived experiences, cultural differences, and all the other ways we’re very unique is important. Open, respectful dialogue and a kindhearted desire to educate those willing to learn is the way to go.
- Make your own swaps based on what’s local and seasonally available. Importing exotic produce from thousands of miles away isn’t a sustainable practice either, so make sure your plant-based diet relies heavily on local (or near local) food whenever possible. If you have any space to grow food or could become involved in a local community garden, that would be a great place to start!