Updated: Jan 19, 2022
34,722. That’s how many animals are killed every second around the world for food. With such a staggering statistic, it may appear that becoming a vegetarian wouldn't make a huge difference. Yet, when observing the effects of replacing just one meal consisting of animal products with a vegetarian meal, it becomes clear that this lifestyle is one of the most important tools we have to combat climate change.
Environmental benefits of vegetarianism:
1. Fewer greenhouse gas emissions
Livestock accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans, which is more than cars, planes, trains, and other forms of transportation combined. Transitioning to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce food-related emissions by 70% or 63%, respectively, as one-third of the fossil fuels produced in the U.S. go toward meat production.
2. Less water usage
While only 60 pounds of water are required to produce a pound of potatoes, one pound of beef requires over 20,000 lbs of water, and one gallon of milk needs 8,000 pounds of water. An average pig farm uses 75 million gallons of fresh water each year, and large farms may need as much as an entire city. In a climate where droughts and water scarcity are becoming more common, it is imperative that we reduce the amount of water required by farming, which uses 70% of water available to humans.
3. Better land use
As the world’s population continues to grow, so does our need for land. 30% of the available land for humans is used for livestock or growing food for animals. In fact, if the food fed to animals was instead fed to humans, we would have more than enough food to solve the issue of world hunger.
Clearing land for livestock is one of the key drivers of deforestation—seven football fields’ worth of land is bulldozed every minute to make more space for animals or their food production. Annually, this adds up to 6 million hectares of forest, an area equivalent to twice the size of Belgium. Overgrazing leads to flooding, soil erosion, desertification, and the destruction of fragile ecosystems, especially in developing nations. Additionally, around a fifth of mangrove forests have been destroyed since 1980 due to aquaculture farms; their loss is significant, as they counteract the devastating effects of sea level rise in tropical regions. The area we already have is more than sufficient for the agricultural lands necessary to feed a vegan population, reducing deforestation and helping restore life in biodiversity hotspots.
4. Less Pollution
Emissions and waste from dense factory farms affects our air, water, and land. Not only are greenhouse gases emitted, but the ammonia produced largely contributes to acid rain. Ozone pollution endangers nearby communities, leading to a multitude of respiratory conditions, such as chest pain and inflammation.
Marine ecosystems are also negatively impacted, as runoff from agriculture is the top source of pollution in US waterways. Dead zones are created when large quantities of animal waste from factory farms and fertilizer end up in the ocean. This causes massive algal blooms that consume all of the oxygen in the water, killing much of the marine life in the area.
These dead zones plagued by algal blooms around the Mississippi River are nearly the size of Maryland, but reducing meat consumption could make them small or even non-existent.
5. Reduced disease transmission
Many emerging diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted from animals to humans. Some of the most recent devastating epidemics have been caused by zoonotic diseases, including the avian flu and COVID-19. Animal waste contains many pathogens, such as salmonella and E. coli. Not only can these diseases be transmitted to humans through runoff, but because animals are fed an enormous quantity of antibiotics to increase meat production. This leads to a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Now that you know why a vegetarian diet is better for the environment, let’s discuss some simple ways you can transition to a plant-based diet.
Meatless Mondays - Not only do you save 133 gallons of water and 8 pounds of carbon by eliminating meat once a week, but you may also reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.
Eliminating red meat - Red meat is some of the most resource-intensive. In fact, the cattle that produce beef and milk are responsible for about two-thirds of total greenhouse gas emissions generated by livestock. Methane emissions from the digestive systems of these animals represent 30% of global methane emissions.
Smaller portion sizes - The more you cut down on meat, the easier it will be for your stomach to handle plant fiber. Additionally, eating less meat mitigates all of the impacts discussed above!
The benefits of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle are tangible; a global shift could avoid 7-8 million deaths by 2050. Its impacts can even be seen in the economic sector, as changing dietary patterns could save up to $30 trillion annually, not including the money saved due to fewer extreme weather events caused by climate change. So the next time you reach for a veggie wrap instead of a hamburger, remember that you are doing your part to save the world.
*Note: While many people also choose a vegetarian diet for ethical and animal cruelty reasons, this article focuses on the environmental benefits of a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle.