Sustainable Living, Carbon Footprint, and the Vegan Diet

Sustainable Living, Carbon Footprint, and the Vegan Diet

Today, we’re talking about sustainability and the vegan diet: Is excluding all animal products, from both land and sea, truly sustainable? The answer is a little more complex than just a simple yes or no.

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Animal agriculture is the practice of breeding animals for food and other products–like leather and fur–and also for recreational purposes. For meat products that includes cultivating grain for feed, required water resources, slaughtering, processing, distribution and retail services with many of these processes being energy intensive. Animal agriculture contributes to deforestation that removes essential carbon sequesters in order to supply pastureland and grow crops, and animal manure contributes its own greenhouse gases to our atmosphere.

In fact, animal agriculture is globally responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the world’s transportation systems combined. It takes about 11 times more fossil fuel to produce a calorie of animal protein than it does to produce a calorie of grain protein, and hence much more carbon dioxide is released; the US Environmental Protection Agency has shown that animal agriculture is globally the single largest source of methane emissions as animals digest their food and emit methane from flatulence and feces; and the UN found that the meat, egg, and dairy industries account for 65% of global nitrous-oxide emissions.

Furthermore, an Oxford University Study published in the journal Climate Change found that meat-eaters are responsible for almost twice as many dietary greenhouse gas emissions per day when compared to vegetarians, and about two and half times as many when compared to vegans. Specifically, the study found that the diets of people who ate more than 3.5 ounces of meat daily, generated 15.8 pounds of carbon-dioxide equivalent each day, and vegetarians and vegans were responsible for 8.4 pounds and 6.4 pounds of carbon-dioxide equivalent respectively.

On the other hand, veganism is believed to be the most environmentally friendly and sustainable diet largely because a plant-based diet simply produces fewer greenhouse gases than meat and dairy products.

Researchers at the Loma Linda University in California found that vegans generate a 41.7% smaller volume of greenhouse gases than meat-eaters do. And a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America posited that if everyone in the world went vegan back in 2016, by 2050 the world’s food-related emissions would drop by 70%. The United Nations therefore argues that a global shift to veganism is essential to combat the effects of climate change.

However, in some cases, veganism actually is not the most sustainable option. For instance, in Finland many lakes are kept healthy through fishing practices that prevent overcrowding, which enables the consumption of fish to be environmentally sustainable for that region. Likewise, in some Arctic areas many plants cannot grow and must be transported over long distances for consumption, making nutritionally efficient foods like meat more sustainable.

A notable 2017 study from Italy showed that some vegan participants had larger carbon impacts than meat eaters because they only ate imported fruit. Additionally, staple foods in a vegan diet like avocados, almonds, soy, palm oil, require large amounts of water and land use.

Packaged foods offer convenience, but not necessarily the needed nutrition to maintain a healthy lifestyle. And the many popular plant-based alternatives to animal products, such as the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, are highly processed and contain ingredients that may not be suitable for all people. The Impossible Whopper at Burger King, for instance, contains significantly more sodium than the regular Whopper and a variety of other processed ingredients like modified food starch, soy protein isolate, and cultured dextrose.

But the fact is, the vegan diet is almost always a lower carbon footprint diet than a meat-based one and the outlier cases are important at a local level—not global. However, in order to truly be sustainable, thought needs to go into choosing what food you consume.

Shop local, shop in season, consider the water footprint of your food, be mindful of unsustainable packaging, and learn about the agricultural practices of the companies producing what you eat–do they abide by fair trade standards and farm sustainably? And always keep in mind nutritional requirements for a healthy lifestyle. Highly processed, packaged vegan foods may be no better for you or the planet, so always check your labels.

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