Can Eating a Plant-Based Diet Really Help Save the Planet?

Oct 19, 2020 | Environment & Energy, Health


The current climate crisis is evidenced by rising global temperatures, warming ocean temperatures, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreats, decreased snow cover, rising sea levels, declining arctic sea ice, extreme weather events, and ocean acidification. Additionally, a UN scientist has warned that we have just 10 years to get climate change under control, and has urged the world to develop “negative emissions” of carbon to mitigate the alarming amounts already present in the atmosphere. But what can we, as individuals, do to help combat this crisis? Some argue that one of the best ways is to adopt a plant-based diet. 

A plant-based diet, also known as a vegan diet, has been adopted by around 75,300,000 people worldwide. While the most common reasons for eating plant-based are for health and animal protection, there is also the environmental motivation to eat more sustainably. But can an individual diet change actually contribute to worthwhile, positive impacts on the environment?

The UN Environment Programme published an article (before COVID-19) claiming that “meat” is the world’s most urgent problem and arguing that the continuation of mass meat consumption will have devastating consequences for human health, climate change, natural resources, and animal welfare. Additionally, an article from One Green Planet argues that even after the attempts to make meat more sustainable through innovative production techniques, meat options still fall short of the production efficiency and capability that accompanies a plant-based diet. 

Greenhouse gas emissions from common foods. A plant-based diet has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.
Source: Forks Over Knives.

One of the first environmental reasons people give for making the switch to a plant-based diet is the recklessly large amount of water it takes to produce different types of food. The water use argument clearly supports the move towards plant-based diets: It takes 1,847 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef compared to just 39 gallons per pound of vegetables. The second most common environmental reason for the switch in diets is because of the apparent difference in greenhouse gas emissions from food production. A chart from Forks Over Knives shows the enormous discrepancy between greenhouse emissions from meat production in comparison to vegetable and fruit production.  

We can even see many benefits when looking at a plant-based diet purely from a food sustainability perspective. Meat and dairy products use up 83% of the world’s farmland but only account for 18% of our calorie and 37% of our protein intake. This is a glaring discrepancy between the food we actually consume and the amount of land that is used to accommodate food resources. Additionally, an article from Forbes estimates that we could reduce our global farmland use up to 75% if we stop consuming and producing meat and dairy. Some organizations even argue that we could solve world hunger if we reevaluate our allocation of land usage regarding food. Organizations such as A Well-Fed World and One Green Planet are trying to make that happen. 

So why should you, as an individual, go vegan in addition to pushing for mass initiatives from companies and corporations? Given the nature of our capitalistic society, individuals can make the switch to help increase the market demand for plant-based options by pushing companies to produce more and more meat alternatives. Additionally, eating a plant-based diet can reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by up to 73%, potentially offering a massive environmental benefit if the diet is adopted by a larger portion of the population. There is currently a growing number of people making the switch to veganism, hopefully inspiring others to follow suit. Eating a plant-based diet is becoming more and more feasible as meat-alternatives, such as the Beyond Burger, are being offered in local restaurants. Mic the Vegan, a YouTuber and vegan activist, has even proposed a picture of how the world would transform if we were to adopt a plant-based diet on a global scale. The picture Mic paints is a much brighter alternative than the one that will result if we don’t take action. If the United Nations scientists are correct, we only have 8 years left to make these crucial changes in order to save the planet. We have to act now. 

Resources for those looking to go vegan, but are unsure where to start:

Featured Image source: Unsplash.