Making the switch to a plant-based diet is a powerful way by which we can individually help save the Earth. Together, we will explore animal agriculture’s environmental impact on three principal resources: land, water and air, and learn how a plant-based diet is an effective course of action toward a more sustainable and ethical future.
“Adopting a plant-based diet is the single most impactful way to both preserve and protect the environment, our oceans, wilderness, and biodiversity, and to focus on improving our health. Moreover, it is the most expedient way to end the industrialized farming of animals.”
(Dax Dasilva. Age of Union: Igniting the Changemaker)
Huge areas of natural land and forest around the world are being cleared to make space for cattle, which threatens biodiversity and ecosystems. This is a critical issue as biodiversity is what allows life to remain in balance regardless of natural changes in the environment.
Animal agriculture accounts for around 75% of global deforestation, and is the leading cause of species extinction and habitat destruction.
Forests that are home to a rich ecosystem, such as the Amazon Rainforest, are in a state of continual destruction in order to sustain both international and domestic commercial animal agriculture. Pastures and feed crops now occupy most of the rainforest, leaving less than a third of its entirety for local fauna and flora. This take-over has not only caused nearly irreversible damage to biodiversity (like the disappearance or quasi-disappearance of certain animal species), but also contributes to the displacement of indigenous tribes who no longer have space or resources to live in the forest.
Animal agriculture may have once been an efficient system, but with population growth and expansive industrial farming, it has now become an unsustainable model.
According to the University of Oxford’s data lab, “Livestock takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land yet produces less than 20% of the world's supply of calories.”
Additionally, a third of total harvested crops are exclusively being used to feed livestock instead of humans. It takes 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based diet, therefore by drastically reversing the role of crops and livestock we would see less deforestation, higher food production, and curb the threat to biodiversity.
Producing animal protein requires significantly more water than the production of plant protein. In fact, animal agriculture alone consumes about a third of all freshwater supplies worldwide. This includes water for irrigation, water the animals drink, and polluted water that must be discarded. The gradual elimination of commercial animal agriculture could substantially reduce our risk of exhausting our clean water resources.
It takes 43 000 liters to produce only 1 kg of beef. The consumption of one hamburger in terms of water usage is equivalent to showering for two months.
(Source: Bioscience, Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues)
The amount of toxic and greenhouse gasses produced by animal agriculture presents a huge problem when it comes to clean air for the future. Animal farms produce massive amounts of waste which emit damaging gasses into our atmosphere. The food and agriculture organization of the United Nations states that “the total emissions from global livestock represent 18 percent of all anthropogenic (human-caused) GHG emissions”. This is because cows emit enormous quantities of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) through belching and flatulence. These harmful gasses are gradually lowering the air quality on a global scale.
"Even without fossil fuels, we will exceed our carbon emission limit by 2030 all from raising animals”
(Source: The WorldWatch).
What can we individually do?
Individual choices can often lead to big changes. Become a change-maker!
The more we opt for a plant-based diet, the more of a chance we have to reverse the damaging effects of commercial livestock farming. As the demand for inexpensive commercialized meat decreases, corporations will eventually have no choice but to follow suit. Education is key in bringing systemic change, and teaching children early on about the environmental impact of food and how it is produced would facilitate more environmentally sustainable choices in the future.
“While not everyone can go plant-based overnight, it is becoming easier to do this gradually. One can explore this path by starting as a flexitarian or reducetarian.” (Dax Dasilva. Age of Union: Igniting the Changemaker)
If you want to switch to a plant-based diet, or are simply concerned about the environment, here are a few tips:
#1- Set gradual goals
Remember that we are all different and have different needs, so it’s important to take your time. Reduce meat portions in your weekly diet, until you have eliminated red meat completely. Red meat has the most negative effect when it comes to environmental damage so you’re already making a big difference. When you feel comfortable, after a few weeks or months, start cutting out chicken and fish. If you wish to fully transition to a plant-based diet, eliminate the consumption of all remaining animal products like dairy and eggs.
#2- Don’t get discouraged by the price of meat and cheese alternatives
See them as treats and not staples! Your diet should consist of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes in order to stay healthy. Tofu is a healthier alternative to most soy products and is quite cheap.
#3-Educate yourself on nutrition
It’s important not to go about a plant-based diet solely based on the “I’ll remove meat from my diet” method. You must take into account what you will be missing from not consuming dairy and meat and learn what foods provide the same benefits. Get a vegan cooking book, check recipes online, follow vegan change-makers on Instagram sharing daily tips, so you will learn about superfoods, raw cooking, chia, maca and all kinds of new things you can integrate in your diet!
#4- Try to opt for seasonal, organic foods at local markets.
This not only supports the economy but sends a message that you look to a sustainable future!
#5- Be as self-sustainable as possible.
If you can, grow your own vegetables and herbs! Share your harvest with your friends and neighbours. Community-based sustainable action is the key to the future.
As we have seen, animal agriculture currently has an extremely negative impact on future generations’ resources and has become an irreversible catalyst for climate change. A prevailing switch to a plant-based diet will have a tremendous impact on the environment and result in substantial reductions to global warming, biodiversity devastation and pollution of our air, water and land.
Written by Stephanie Aoun.
Stephanie will begin her final year in the geography and human environment program at Concordia University. She is Age Of Union’s summer intern and will be sharing her insights on environmental issues in featured articles and contributing to research projects.
Photography credit by Stephane Desmeules