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Food food Vegan

New study shows a vegan diet is the best way to reduce your footprint

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by: Annette Lavrijsen
new study shows a vegan diet is the best way to reduce your footprint

A vegan diet without any animal products appears to be the first and foremost way to reduce your individual ecological footprint, a new study shows.

What we choose to eat and drink are strong determinants of human health, and we become more and more aware of the fact that the foods we choose and consume may significantly affect the environment. I’ve been a fulltime vegetarian for over 20 years and it has only been months that I made the switch to being a part-time vegan. Influenced by news reports on global warming and studies that show a plant-based diet is least harmful for the wellbeing of our planet, I’m now replacing my cheese, eggs and dairy ingredients by plant-based alternatives if available.
Blue plate, fruit, porrage, hand, #vegan
Image by Edgar Castre

One of the latest additions to my list of pro vegan studies is an analysis by researchers at the University of Oxford and the Swiss agricultural research institute Agroscope. This study, which was recently published in the journal Science, shows that cutting all meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce your ecological footprint up to 73 per cent. The researchers found that meat and dairy production are responsible for 60 per cent of agriculture’s climate change gas emissions and a vast majority of 83 per cent of used farmland, while the products themselves are providing just 37 per cent of protein levels and a mere 18 per cent of calories worldwide. If everyone would stop eating meat and dairy, global farmland could be reduced by 75 per cent – an area equivalent to the size of the US, Australia, China and the EU combined – and still feed the world! Next to a significant drop of greenhouse gas emissions, it could promote biodiversity and the conservation of endangered animal and plant species. 

Multi-folded footprint

The study is one of the biggest analyses to date into the damage farming does to the environment: it includes data on nearly 40,000 farms in 119 countries, and examines how 40 major foods (90 per cent of all food that is eaten) impact the environment, taking into account the greenhouse gas emissions as well as water pollution (eutrophication), air pollution (acidification), land use and water consumption.

Lead author Joseph Poore from Oxford’s Department of Zoology and the School of Geography and Environment, told The Guardian that ‘a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on planet Earth. The effect is far bigger than cutting down on your flight or buying an electric car, as these would only reduce greenhouse gases’.

As if he could read our minds, the scientist added: ‘Avoiding consumption of all animal products delivers even far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.’ He and his team found that the most sustainable meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental damage than the highest impact cereal, legumes and vegetables growing. To illustrate: sustainable beef is responsible for 6 times more greenhouse gas emissions and 36 times more land than legumes. The researchers also looked into the different techniques used to produce the same foods and found huge differences in environmental impact. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land uses 50 times more land than cows that rear on natural pastures.
Cows barren ground, #vegan
Image by: Annie Spratt

And it’s not just livestock and meat products that increase our environmental impact. Aquaculture, assumed to have relatively low emissions, can emit more methane and therefore create more greenhouse gases than cows. Even rice – which takes up about 12 per cent of the global arable area – produces a lot of methane, for which it has one of the biggest plant carbon footprints. 

Action starts with awareness

The huge diversity in agricultural foods and processes makes it challenging to find solutions to these environmental issues. Two foods that look similar in the shops can have extremely different impacts on the planet, says Poore. This variability isn’t fully reflected in policies aimed at reducing the ecological impact of farming, and apart from sustainability certifications that give guidance regarding matters such as pesticide-free produce and sustainable fishing, consumers are still being offered very little information about the impact of their food choices.

Besides keeping track of the latest news and studies, the best advice we can probably receive is to stay aware of the multi-folded impact of our food choices and – for the above-mentioned reasons – to grant more time to a plant-based diet, even if it’s only a few days a week.

Cover image by: Brenda Godin

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