Plant Based Diets: How Effective are They, Really?

by Ana Lopez de Arenosa, GLOBUS Correspondent

Over the past few months I have been looking into ways that I can reduce my individual impact on the environment. Time and time again, what kept coming up as one of the most effective things any given person could do in order to reduce their impact was to stick to a plant based diet, limiting meat consumption and ensuring that any fish and meat one consumes is reliably sourced. At first I was skeptical that what seemed like such a small, individual change could make such a great impact on the environment as a whole. But as I began to look deeper into the subject, I realized the scale with which agriculture is destroying our ecosystem, and that reducing our meat consumption as a society we could put a stop to an irreversible amount of damage done to the environment each year. 

One of the main ways in which the consumption of meat harms the environment is current farming methods in this day and age. When done correctly, organic farming can remove 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre from the atmosphere each year. At an industrial level, however, as in most developed countries, farming can produce up to 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Other organizations like the Worldwatch Institute estimate that it could be as high as 51%. Livestock production is mainly responsible for these huge amounts carbon dioxide production levels. Rising cattle, in particular, produces one third of the methane emissions coming from the United States agricultural sector, according to the EPA, due to their enteric fermentation process (aka, when the cows pass gas). Manure production also contributes to these high levels of greenhouse gasses, especially methane which warms the earth 20 times faster than any other greenhouse gas. Deforestation, additionally, leads to higher levels of surface warming, with the expansion of farmland. The increase in rising, global temperatures are responsible for the rapid rate of ice melting at the ice caps on both of the earth’s poles, affecting millions of species which depend on the ice and these cold temperatures for survival. 

The extreme carbon footprint of the agriculture industry is not the only shocking aspect of this industry, as it also uses inconcievable amounts of water. According to the Water Footprint Network, it takes 262 litres of water to produce one glass of cow’s milk. 51 litres of milk are drunk by the average british person per year, resulting in 13362 litres of water being used per person’s milk consumption each year. Clean water is a finite resource and 33% of it goes to the animal agriculture industry.

Moreover, harvesting crops needed to feed livestock accounts for 56% of the water sources. The IME states that to producing 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water, whereas producing 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 litres of water.

Furthermore, because animals are so densely packed on industrial farms, with up to 20 chickens packed into one square metre according to the Brightside Farming Sanctuary, they produce more manure than can be absorbed by the land as a fertilizer. This leads to high levels of contamination in surface water runoff, all of which enter the groundwater system, intoxicating fresh water sources, with detrimental effects for the ecosystem surrounding this water source. We could be putting our resources to much better use if we did not consume as much meat as we do, which would save water levels and reduce the water shortage as a result. 

These polluted water sources produce dead zones in the oceans, a phenomenon which is officially called Hypoxia. It occurs when high levels of toxics in the water source eliminate high amounts of oxygen in the water, inhibiting natural life. These toxins get streamed back into the ocean and cause marine life around the affected area to suffocate and die. One of the most shocking examples of this is the Gulf of Mexico which has the world’s largest dead zone, estimated to be about 8,185 square miles as forecasted by the NOAA in June 2018. The toxic waste that flowed back into the oceans as a result of poor farming techniques led to an increase in algae growth, which then used up the water’s oxygen as it decomposed. This makes the area uninhabitable for the fish in the region, forcing them to migrate to other areas, decreasing the biodiversity levels. 

In a similar way, so many resources need to go into finding enough land in order to harvest the food necessary to feed the livestock, which result in one third of all arable land used world wide being put to this use, when it could be used much more efficiently if we farmed food for humans using less space. This is also why animal agriculture is one of the main contributors to deforestation and often times also leads to desertification, speeding up soil erosion and destroying the land’s native vegetation. Both of these phenomena result in the endangerment of entire species such as orangutans, red pandas, sloths, both Sumatra and Borneo elephants and many more. The extinction of these animals would result in severe biodiversity loss, compromising the functionality of the entire ecosystem and consequently putting the planet at risk. 

In conclusion, the impact of animal farming for meat produce is immense. The amount of damage it does to the planet is at often times overlooked as meat has become a staple in our diet, especially in western cultures. However, by reducing one’s meat and fish intake to once or twice a week and ensuring that the meat is responsibly sourced from local farms which do not partake in these industrial agricultural practices, this impact would vastly decrease and the environmental damage would slowly begin to subside. This is an attitude which if adopted by our entire society, would make an indescribable difference to the world’s ecosystem. 

Header Image: Photo by Frank Winkler from Pixabay

References: 

http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/

http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25795-going-vegetarian-halves-co2-emissions-from-your-food/

https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#agriculture

https://waterfootprint.org/en/resources/interactive-tools/product-gallery/

https://mercyforanimals.org/animal-agriculture-wastes-one-third-of-drinkable

http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/

https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/jan/10/how-much-water-food-production-waste

http://brightside.org.au/ethical_eating/factory_farming

https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/endangered-species-threatened-by-unsustainable-palm-oil-production#

https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/gulf-of-mexico-dead-zone-is-largest-ever-measured

https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/noaa-usgs-and-partners-predict-third-largest-gulf-of-mexico-summer-dead-zone-ever

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