Eating Our Way to a Cleaner World
Posted Oct 11, 2017 | Blog Post
Veganism. Most people are either intrigued by this one word or roll their eyes and scroll away before even reading another comment. Don’t worry, this is not a ‘pro-vegan,’ ‘eat-green-live-fit’ post, but an examination of the impacts of veganism – the act of refraining from ingesting any and all types of animal-food products (and by-products) including meat, dairy, honey and eggs. Most people only see the extremes to this debate without actually understanding the arguments on both sides. This week on Turning a New Leaf: The Green Revolution, we are going to objectively examine the impacts of a meat-free world, and how this would play out globally for both our environment and our health moving forward.
The first thing to note about the vegan debate is that on average, we, from developed countries, eat waaaaaay more meat than we ought to. A study on the impact of animal farming on biodiversity loss from the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) stated that on average, UK citizens consumed 19-33 more grams of protein per day than the average daily intake recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is not just this protein increase by meat that can lead to negative health outcomes, but it is the increased rates of saturated fats in meat products that has been associated with increased risks of heart disease. For example, the same WWF study found that in 2017, it would take six intensively reared chickens to have the same amount of omega-3 content as just one chicken found in the 1970s, since most of the protein in our current chickens has been turned to saturated fat. Furthermore, constant consumption of processed meats has been associated with a 42% increased risk of cardiovascular disease and a 19% increased risk for Type II diabetes. These statistics are not meant to dissuade individuals from eating meat products since they are a great source of iron, fat and protein, but they are helpful to understand the extent to which overconsumption of these same meat products has impacted the long-term health of our populations, and increased the global burden of chronic disease.
Now if we were to examine the environmental impacts of our current meat consumption, we would get an eye-opening picture of the carbon-footprint of our fast-food burger. In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN came out with a study stating that the meat industry was one of the biggest threats to the sustainability of the global environment by contributing to 14.5% of all human-related greenhouse emissions. This has been illustrated by the fact that a US family of four emits more greenhouse gases due to their meat consumption in one year, than their entire fuel consumption for two household cars.
The four main emissions pathways in meat consumption are: 1) methane emission from enteric fermentation (which is a fancy way to say the digestive by-products of livestock, including gas); 2) methane and N2O emissions from manure management; 3) CO2 and N2O emissions from animal-feed; and 4) CO2 emissions from energy consumption (harvesting, processing, etc.). Agriculture accounts for ¼ of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and within this, livestock farming accounts for 80% of this total. Therefore, if we were to go vegan by 2050, we would reduce global carbon emissions by 17 percent, and cut global agriculture GHG emissions by 2/3.
Furthermore, it is not just emissions that are effected by our current meat consumption rates but land use and biodiversity as well. Livestock farming take up a lot of space. Out of the 5 billion global hectors of land used for agriculture, 68 percent of this total is used for livestock farming. This means that out of our total global ice-free land, 26 percent of this land is specifically used to grow cows and their kin. That means that a third of our world is designated to grow beef, a staggering amount.
Moreover, in the image above, research from the Water Footprint Network has estimated that one pound of steak throughout its entire lifecycle on average, requires 1,779 gallons of water. This is an unbelievable amount of water for one pound of anything, and even still does not include the rates of carbon emissions and pollution that accompany beef processing and water transport.
To finish off with some food for thought in the global vegan debate. A canonical paper by the Springmann lab out of Oxford found that using computer modeling, they could estimate the world health and economic impacts of a total global vegan lifestyle. They found that by 2050, global veganism would reduce global gross healthcare bills by 2-3%, a 1.5 trillion-dollar savings in both climate damages and health costs; and would stave off 8 million lives, a global mortality rate reduction of 6-10%. Half of these deaths would be saved due to the elimination of meat consumption, while the other half would be due to an increase in fruit and vegetable intake.
Therefore, the goal of this post is not to promote veganism and its friends, but to get us to think about clean eating from an environmental standpoint. If the climate damages associated with GHG emissions were included in the price of meat, beef prices would rise by 40% and milk and other meats would rise by 20%. The statement isn’t to scold those who eat meat but to get us to think about conscious consumerism and small food alternatives when appropriate. Try a meatless Monday, or switch your daily ham sandwich to a baby-green salad – it seems like these small changes won’t have an impact but together, we can make a whole lot of difference.