Individuals choose a plant-based diet for a variety of reasons; some for animal welfare benefits, others for health purposes.
While both of these reasons are completely valid, here we focus on another benefit – protecting the environment. From keeping your trash cans empty to reducing your carbon footprint, here are six ways going veg is good for the planet.
1. Reduce water consumption
Farming accounts for 70 percent of all fresh water drawn from lakes, waterways and aquifers, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Meat production, especially the feeding of cattle, is especially water intensive.
It takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef, compared to a mere 25 gallons to produce one serving of rice or grain, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. More conservative estimates put the water consumption of cattle farming closer to 1,000 gallons per pound, but either way, that’s a lot of water.
If you aren’t ready to commit to a vegetarian or vegan diet full time, consider opting for a meat-free meal once each week, which can save a whopping 84,000 gallons of water per year.
On days you still eat meat, choosing poultry instead of beef also cuts down on water use. It only takes about 500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of chicken compared to the thousands of gallons required for beef, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
2. Save fossil fuels
Conventional farming methods use petrochemical, or oil-based, fertilizers for feedstock crops. Pumping water from rivers and transporting and refrigerating meat also racks up the fossil fuel use of meat production – amounting to figures that may shock you.
It takes about 54 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from beef, compared to 2 calories of fossil fuel for 1 calorie of protein from soy. According to some estimates, more than one-third of all fossil fuels consumed in the U.S. are used in animal production.
By cutting out meat for only one meal each week, you can save more than 15 gallons of gasoline per year.
3. Protect open space
Millions of acres of land, many of which were once rainforest, are used for livestock grazing and farming animal feed. In its 2010 report “What’s Feeding Our Food?” Friends of the Earth estimates that about 6 million hectares of forest land, an area twice the size of Belgium, is converted to farmland each year – most of which goes to livestock and animal feed farming.
By choosing a vegetarian or vegan meal once each week, you could save nearly 8,000 square feet of open space from being converted to farmland.
4. Stop topsoil erosion
About 30 percent of the world’s entire land surface – a whopping 70 percent of all agricultural land – is used for farming animals, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. An additional one-third of the land suitable for farming crops is used to produce animal feed.
Livestock farming naturally causes soil erosion: Soil tends to break down and wash away after years of grazing and pasturing. But when farms are overstocked, as many are, erosion and desertification takes place at accelerated rates.
About 20 percent of the world’s grazing land has been designated as degraded, mostly because of overgrazing, compaction and erosion attributable to livestock activity. 70 percent of grazing land in dry areas is considered to be degraded.
The good news is that you can save 87-square feet of topsoil from erosion by choosing a plant-based meal only once each week. Rack up the savings by going veg a bit more frequently.
5. Minimize GHGs
Emissions from animal agriculture contribute to more greenhouse gases than all the trucks and cars on the planet combined, according to a 2006 study conducted by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The main source of GHGs produced in animal farming is livestock manure, which is rich in both methane and nitrous oxide – two highly potent greenhouse gases. The Vegetarian Society estimates that livestock produces 37 percent of the total methane and 65 percent of the total nitrous oxide generated by human activity.
To combat the problem, some states are recapturing gases generated from animal waste and converting them into electricity, decreasing both emissions and agricultural runoff. But if you’re looking to cut the carbon footprint of your evening meal, consider going veg at least once each week to minimize GHGs.
6. Reduce agricultural runoff
One of the top environmental concerns surrounding livestock farming is agricultural runoff, and the reason is fairly simple: Animals poop a lot. In fact, farmed animals produce about 130 times as much excrement as the entire U.S. population – an unbelievable 87,000 pounds of waste per second!
For obvious reasons, the thought of all that waste winding up in rivers, streams and other waterways is slightly disturbing to environmentalists. When livestock farm pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics and pesticides, enter waterways, they can cause a great deal of damage. Algal blooms are a particularly serious problem, blocking waterways and damaging natural ecosystems.
Other studies show that runoff-related contaminants can also make us sick. An estimated 19.5 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste, according to a study published in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.
An ever-growing number of states are modifying legislation in an effort to keep agricultural runoff out of waterways. But if you want to reduce your contribution to the problem, just opt for a plant-based meal once each week – which will reduce more than 400 pounds of manure produced by food animals.