Is Veganism Truly Good for the Planet? A Step-By-Step Analysis
Behind every widely accepted idea in the world, there is one or more cause the population believes to bear greater significance or meaning to our existence. One of these ideas is veganism. Many people switch to a vegan diet simply because they want to have a clean dietary pattern. Others may switch as part of being able to make healthy life choices and some others do it for the planet. It has been pervasively propagated, a vegan diet is a sustainable diet. At least most of the vegans claim and believe it to be so.
Isn’t it so simple…just switch to a plant-based diet and diminish your carbon footprint? There you go, significantly reducing the impact human dietary pattern has on the environment. That’s it? Well, you might be shocked and even disappointed to learn vegan food might not save the planet as it has been propagated to be.
There are a number of factors determining the environmental impact of a food type. These factors may range from the agricultural process, usage of fertilizers, amount of land and water consumed for the given cropping season to the transportation of the food to the market of its demand.
Are Vegans Truly Contributing Towards Saving The Planet?
To understand this matter, we definitely need to examine the impact of plant-based food vs. animal-based food on the environment. Before that, let’s also consider the criteria of our nutrition in it.
There is an undeniable risk associated with a vegan diet pertaining to the deficiency of certain macronutrients and micronutrients. While most plant-based food items are typically low in vital nutrients, some are not technically low in nutrient content. But, these may have a less bioavailable form of the mineral which reduces its ability to be absorbed by the body. To acquire the necessary RDI (Recommended Dietary Intake) of the micros and macros, thereby avoiding the common vegan nutrient deficiencies, vegans need to incorporate a variety of plant-based food in varying volumes, which when put together may not seem environmentally sustainable.
Animal-derived foods such as dairy, meat, fat, etc. are nutrient-rich but their industrial production has a significant impact on the environment. Recently the UN identified meat and dairy, especially from farmed livestock, constitute 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to the environment. The account is unbelievably close to that of vehicular emissions or exhaust from almost every car, ship, airplane, and train on the planet!
No plant-based food item, derived from manual agricultural processes, is likely to surpass the high bars set by animal farming. This does not necessary ensure a vegan diet will be totally sustainable. Certain food products such as nuts, almonds, soya, etc. release more greenhouse gases. This puts them well above the safe threshold of sustainable food choices. The land utilized by a particular food crop and the gases released during its production and processing also account for an environmental impact most of us tend to overlook.
Though vegan foods are healthier and less exploitative than animal-based foods, this doesn’t mean they are “good” to the environment.
How Vegan Foods Unsustainably Impact the Environment
Water Thirsty Crops
Though this may sound weird, certain plants consume tremendous amounts of water across their plantation areas in order to produce just one kilogram of fruits. As reported by Water Footprint Network, one single avocado is produced utilizing 60 gallons of water! It is nearly four times the water needed to produce the same amount of oranges. Nonetheless, mangoes also require about 700 liters (185 gallons) of water to produce just one kilogram of fruit (with the seeds added to the flesh). Thus, mangoes leave a greater impact on the planet’s water crisis.
Walnuts, almonds, and cashew nuts are also water-intensive. Tree nuts may consume over 4,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of the shelled nuts. Not only are certain fruits or vegetables water-thirsty, but the alternative kinds of milk also use volumes of water. To produce a single glass of almond milk, about 74 liters of water is used. Rice milk needs 54 liters per glass. Even though they utilize less water, land, and emit low volumes of CO2 than dairy, the impact on the environment is still considerably high.
The Agricultural Procedure
To meet the demand in the food industry, agriculturalists need the power of technology as well as the land to generate more produce. However, some plants, such as soy and palm may require large areas of land to reap the desired food product. As reported by the WWF, after beef, the second largest agricultural cause of deforestation globally is soy.
From the Amazon to the US, a number of forests, grasslands, and wetlands are cleared up to produce soy. Palm has even pushed orangutans into extinction. In most instances, forests are also illegally destroyed to reap these food products. Cocoa plantations follow soy and palm in being land-intensive crops. Between 1988 and 2008, close to 7.4 million acres of tropical forests were cleared out for cocoa plantation with a maximum of deforestation happening in West Africa.
Carbon and Greenhouse Gas Emission
When we think of food crops deriving environmental hazard, one can easily guess the impact of artificial fertilizers in contributing to the contamination of air and underground water. About 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from artificial fertilizers. The manufacture and processing of synthetic fertilizers are also responsible for emitting CO2 and methane into the environment. Upon being used in the fields, they also release nitrous oxide, which is another harmful greenhouse gas.
When it comes to individual food products, mushrooms emit an average of 3kg of CO2 to yield one kilogram of the food. It is significantly less in comparison to beef and chicken but is almost equal to the amount of CO2 released by tuna and saltwater fish. Though pisciculture has its own impact on biodiversity, yet the crux of the matter is that not all vegan food is harmless to the environment. Moreover, there are significant costs and emissions associated with the transportation of the fruits and vegetables we eat. For example, strawberries and avocados are imported when out of season through the air. The emissions of aircraft thus add to the carbon footprint of the fruits respectively.
To Sum Up
The mantra to make “greener” food choices does not only come from eating greens. Despite it being propagated as an environment-friendly eating habit, vegan foods can still have a negative impact on the planet’s water and carbon footprint. Veganism can and should be favored, however, on grounds of empathy and compassion towards speechless animals.
If you truly care about contributing towards a greener planet and are inclined towards transitioning into a plant-based lifestyle, the key is to thoughtfully narrow down your preferred food options. Essentially, one must try and minimize consumption of remotely grown exotic foods, imported for commercial gains. Go local, grow your own, and know what you’re eating and where it came from. It is also advisable to filter out foods known to harm the planet by contributing towards one earth’s crisis or another.
Guest Author Bio: Tully Zander is a curious housewife, and dedicated vegan, who loves experimenting with food and sharing valuable tips on her social media. You can follow her on her journey to veganism where, together, you can help transition towards a cruelty-free world, which is what she calls the Cruelty-Free Revolution.
How come you don’t mention that soy production is so high because it is one of the top crops used for animal feed? Over 70% of soy production goes to feeding livestock, specifically livestock that is raised for beef consumption. This means that most of the soy production is the fault of animal eaters in the world. Only six percent of all soy is turned into human food… Imagine how much less space we’d need if we stopped mass-producing unhappy animals! Thank you.
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Thanks for the information. I know being vegan won’t 100% help the planet, but at least we are doing something as well as helping the animals. I will keep this in mind when looking at certain fruits and vegetables to buy.