June 6, 2017

Want to Save the World? Eat Plants!

Climate change has dominated the news over the past week. As the issue has moved to the forefront, people are asking themselves what they can do to ensure they are causing as little damage to our world as possible.  But why am I writing about that here? What the heck does climate change have to do with a farm sanctuary?

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals 

Quite a bit! While many people involved in farm animal rescue adopt a plant-based diet to reduce the suffering of animals (we don’t eat our friends!), doing so also positively impacts the planet. Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of net greenhouse gas emissions – that is about 80% of the total greenhouse gas contributions resulting from the food system. Research has shown that on average, it takes about 11 times more fossil fuels to produce a calorie of animal protein than a non-animal source of protein. A Swedish study found that the production of beef, dairy, and pork (particularly bad climate offenders) emits 30 times more greenhouse gases than legumes! The Environmental Protection Agency demonstrated that animal agriculture is the single largest source of methane emissions and the United Nations and the World Bank estimate that somewhere between 70-88% of the Amazon Rainforest that has been destroyed is used by the agricultural industry for grazing. Further complicating the issue, practices that better the conditions of farmed animals in the agricultural industry are sometimes more damaging to the environment. For example, a 2016 report by Penn State University found that a pound of grass-fed beef produced 500% more greenhouse gases than grain-fed beef.

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals 

So, what are we to do? One popular strategy for reducing the impact of one’s diet on the environment has been to focus on local foods. In theory, if you reduce the energy expenditures related to transporting your food you lower your carbon footprint. While this is true, the impact of eating local is relatively modest. Most carbon emissions related to food production don’t come from transportation – transportation is only responsible for 11% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. The impact of methane emissions from ruminants such as cows and sheep are much stronger contributors. That’s right – flatulence is to blame. (Actually, most of the emissions are due to burps, but I wanted to keep my cheeky pictures). These and similar findings led researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden to conclude that reducing greenhouse gas emissions by lowering transportation and associated energy expenditures won’t be enough to combat climate change. In other words, reducing the amount of meat you eat will have a larger impact than eating local (although local veggies would be even better!).

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals 

I’m sure at this point, you won’t be surprised that scientists are increasingly recommending vegetarian and vegan diets to combat climate change.  There are many nuances in the research that I am admittedly not getting into in this post. Some meat production is worse for the environment than others, and there are some plant-based foods whose production causes real, negative consequences for the environment. For example, rice paddies are one of the largest human-created sources of methane. However, a recent Oxford University study found that on average, meat-eaters are responsible for about twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as vegetarians and vegans. They also found that compared to the average current diet, adopting a vegetarian diet would reduce food-related emissions by 63% and a vegan diet would result in a 70% reduction. The researchers concluded that a global shift to a vegan diet could avert 8.1 million human deaths by 2050 and the economic benefit of reduced emissions could be as much as $570 billion.

While a global shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet may not be imminent, we can all do our part by eliminating or reducing the animal products in our diets.  In addition to saving the life of a farmed animal, you may be saving the world.

Namaste.