Recently, it seems like every other environmental podcast, Instagram post, or campaign is encouraging its audience to “switch to a plant-based diet!” It’s true, switching to a plant-based diet is one of the most impactful actions an individual can do to lower their carbon footprint, but is going plant-based always the most sustainable choice for you and the planet?
What Is “Plant-Based” and Why Does It Matter?
A plant-based diet is exactly what it sounds like: an emphasis on consuming mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and oils. It includes the entire rainbow-colored array of beautiful, natural treats from the ground and trees that Mother Earth has provided. Though the term can mean different things to different people, I’m using “plant-based” here to mean something slightly different from a purely vegan or vegetarian diet. “Plant-based” describes a diet that is predominantly vegan, but may occasionally sneak in a slice of cheese, the periodic omelet, or a juicy burger during a summer barbeque. The label implies less strict dietary rules than its buzz-word counterparts.
To understand why a plant-based diet is beneficial to the planet, we need to first understand the harm that is being done by the animal agricultural system. According to Food and Agricultural Organization (U.N.) data, almost 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally come from livestock farming. To put that into perspective, that is almost the same amount of emissions produced by all forms of transport (planes, trains, and automobiles, combined) globally, and more emissions than the entirety of the coal industry. But where do those emissions actually come from within the process itself? I am going to break down what components within livestock farming are actually causing the damage.
Who Smelt It, Delt It
There is some truth behind this myth – cow farts (actually, the burps) do release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. More specifically, methane is released through a natural digestive process called “enteric fermentation” which occurs in cows, sheep, and goats. This accounts for 40% of all of the emissions produced in the entire sector. With over one billion cows in the world, a population only that high because of human intervention, you can imagine how many burps are produced on a daily basis.
To raise animals to maturity, they need to be fed – a lot. The watering, land management, and production of crops such as corn, soy, and wheat to feed livestock make up another 30% of the emissions.
In addition to the toll this farming process takes on the environment, livestock are inefficient converters of feed. That is, livestock consume a lot more food than they ultimately produce – so it would be a much more efficient use of the land, water, and other resources needed to grow crops if those crops went towards feeding people instead of livestock. Learn more about “Feed Conversion Ratios” (FCR).
Manure and Synthetic Fertilizers
Manure is a very natural part of farming, and not in itself harmful. However, when left on pasture for extended periods, and not properly dealt with, it releases nitrous oxide, another harmful and powerful greenhouse gas. That manure, combined with (often toxic] fertilizers (that contribute their own emissions as well), makes up another 30% of total agricultural emissions.
The majority of the rest of emissions comes from energy consumption, which occurs at all levels of production – from producing the crops, feeding and caring for the livestock, the slaughtering process, packaging and production, and shipping. A lot goes into making one single McNugget.
A plant-based diet then, in comparison, requires less land, far less water, and creates no emissions from cow burps. With a much shorter production cycle, plant-based foods require far less energy to produce than animal foods. It is estimated that for each day a person opts for a plant-based diet rather than a meat-heavy one, they save:
- 100 gallons of water
- 40 pounds of grains
- 20 pounds of CO2 emissions
- 30 square feet of land
- And the life of one little animal [source]
If this is still very vague and abstract, here are some more comparisons to put it into perspective:
- The production of one hamburger has the same impact as driving a small car for 20 miles
- A large pig factory generates the same waste as a city of 12,000 people
- Livestock farming accounts for half of all the water usage in the entire U.S.
As in the Buddhist Tradition: Find Your Middle Way
There are clear environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. But what those facts and figures leave out is the pleasure, enjoyment, and fun that can be associated with these foods. Plus, it has long been argued that in order to stick to any diet, or goal in general, it is better to give yourself room to enjoy and breathe, rather than feel frustrated and suffocated by strict rules. This will make your choices easier and more sustainable in the long run, rather than burning out and quitting within the first month.
There have been several approaches to this ideology, including Graham Hill’s “weekday vegetarian” (watch his TED Talk), and the up and coming term “ flexitarian”. Regardless of which term you choose to identify with, I urge you not to get too focused on labels. While often well intended, labels can quickly turn essentializing, exclusionary, and close-minded. Instead, when it comes to eating for the planet, find the “middle way” between what makes you feel good, and what does good for the planet, so we can all enjoy long, healthy, happy lives here on Spaceship Earth.
But just in case you need a little inspiration, here’s a bit of plant-based propaganda to get you excited 😉
- Inspiring vegan recipes
- The health benefits of a plant-based diet
- Pop culture icons who praise a plant based diet (yes, even Beyonce!)
- More information in general on the environmental benefits
The Less Trendy Underdogs: Localization and Regenerative Agriculture
While switching to a plant-based diet can have major implications for our global emissions, especially when done on a larger scale, there are many other approaches that are also effective in reducing emissions, but aren’t as widely discussed.
In an ever growing, interconnected, and globalized world, our access to materials from any corner of the globe is at our fingertips. We have spices from India shipped to America, olives from Spain shipped to China, and rice from Egypt shipped to Costa Rica. As beautiful and inspiring as this is, all of that shipping has creates lots of emissions.
When thinking back on dietary habits, localization is almost always the best solution. Supporting local, ethical farmers supports the community, healthy agricultural practices, the local economy, and has far less transportation and production emissions than big corporations. Not to mention, you can verify that your local farmers are using humane practices when raising animals—just ask them!
Take your time when making decisions when it comes to food. That vegan yogurt at your supermarket may have been produced and shipped from Norway. Yes, it is a plant-based alternative, but it has likely left an environmental footprint of its own to reach that shelf. Instead, you could opt for a locally handcrafted tub of dairy yogurt from your friendly, local farmer down the road.
Also, check out your local farmers’ market! There you are guaranteed to have local produce and products, hand made with hard work and love. Not to mention it’s a lovely outing and an easy way to give back your community. The USDA Directory can guide you towards these events, as well as other locations to find local, organic food.
Regenerative Organic Agriculture
According to Regenerative Organic Certified, a visionary organization established to promote and foster regenerative agriculture around the globe, Regenerative Organic Agriculture is “a holistic approach to farming that treats healthy soil as the foundation of good farming while taking good care of the farmers, farm workers, and farm animals who work and live on the land.”
Some of these practices include:
- Crop Rotation: planting different crops at different times on the same land to improve soil health
- Minimal Soil Disruption: avoiding harmful practices like over-tilling
- Avoiding Pesticides and Other Toxic Chemicals
- Rotational Grazing: moving cattle around different areas of the farm to allow the cow manure to sink into the soil and give time for the land to rest
- Learn more about regenerative organic agriculture and specific practices
Through the use and implementation of these practices, humans can foster a mutually healthier and sustainable relationship with the land and ecosystems we coexist with, as well as maintaining a lifestyle that meets our needs as social beings.
If, and when, you do choose to consume dairy or meat, it is best to look for products from animals that have been pasture-raised.
There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to climate change, and especially not when it comes to eating for the environment. With this information, I hope you can better understand the implications of the animal agricultural sector, the benefits of a plant-based diet, and the wide range of inspiring alternatives and initiatives being undertaken to aid in this climate crisis. At the end of the day, these complex food systems show us how deeply interconnected all humans, plants, animals, and species are. A diet may be an individual choice, but it can have major impacts on the web of Spaceship Earth. No matter what you eat, we are All-One, and I hope this diet movement is one step in uniting us as siblings in arms fighting the human-made climate crisis. Cheers to healthy foods, love, and unity.
Editor’s note: The above article reflects the perspective of the author, not Dr. Bronner’s. As a brand Dr. Bronner’s subscribes to the popular definition of the term plant-based as synonymous with vegan. For those practicing a flexible orientation to plant-based and vegan eating, we encourage the use of the term “plant-forward.”