If you've ever asked a vegan why they are vegan, you may be familiar with the three central reasons behind the lifestyle change for most people: the animals, personal health, and the Earth. As more and more information becomes available about the harsh reality of animal agriculture, it's pretty clear why an animal lover might choose to no longer consume animal products. And thanks to documentaries like Forks Over Knives and What the Health, people have become increasingly aware of the health benefits of a plant-based diet. But how exactly does forgoing animal products help the environment?
For some background, every year, between 56 and 70 billion land animals are raised for meat, eggs, and dairy, according to Animal Matters and Sentient Media. In the U.S., 99 percent of land animals raised for food come from factory farms. And those figures do not include fish, of which several trillion are killed for food each year, according to Fish Count.
Animal agriculture is responsible for an estimated 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the report Livestock's Long Shadow, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The report added that livestock accounts for 35 to 40 percent of global human-caused methane emissions and 65 percent of global human-caused nitrous oxide emissions, which are two of the most potent greenhouse gases on Earth. As explained by NASA, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere prevent heat from escaping the planet, which contributes to climate change.
So, how does raising livestock actually directly cause greenhouse gas emissions? One way is via animal waste, such as animal's burps, farts, and feces (with the highest animal waste emissions coming from cows). Not only does that release methane into the air, but feces are also drained into waterways, which can pollute local communities, further increasing factory farming's environmental impact.
Additionally, as Climate Nexus noted, around a third of global grain production is used to feed livestock. (And growing all that grain requires a lot of fertilizer and pesticides, which have their own negative environmental impacts, as per the NRDC.) If humans stopped eating meat, eggs, and dairy, there would still be plenty of grain and food to feed humans. In fact, some experts predict that if we stopped eating animal products and fed all their grain to humans, we could virtually solve world hunger, according to One Green Planet. (Of course, there would be plenty of infrastructure and logistics to work out, but that's just one interesting way to look at the world's hunger problems.) Furthermore, about a third of the planet's land (not including iced surfaces) is used to raise livestock, and almost 16 percent of the planet's freshwater is used for livestock, according to Climate Nexus.
Last year, a group of researchers at the University of Oxford studied the environmental footprint of livestock, and determined that reducing our consumption of meat and dairy would have a massive impact on the environment. “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” researcher Joseph Poore told The Guardian, based on the study's findings.
If you're feeling inspired to eat more plant-based meals to reduce your environmental impact, there are so many easy ways to get started. You could start by simply instituting Meatless Mondays in your home, you could try making one of your three meals a day completely vegan, or you could even sign up for Challenge 22 or Veganuary to try a plant-based diet for 22 days or a month, respectively. No matter how many plant-based meals you're looking to add to your diet, you hold the power to make a difference.