/Can eating plants save the world?

Can eating plants save the world?

As the global population increases and the strain we place on the earth increases with it, global warming and its effects become increasingly harder to ignore. We all are aware of what’s happening – we are on the path to making the planet inhabitable.  So what do we do about it? We turn off a few lights, we take 4-minute power showers, and we ride our bikes whenever it’s not too cold outside. Sure, leaving lights on is a waste of energy and riding a bike is taking one car off the road, but we’re missing one of the factors of global warming that is doing more harm than anything: eating meat!

Animal agriculture is now said to be one of the leading causes of global warming. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, it is responsible for more than 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is greater than the emissions from all transport combined. It also requires massive amounts of water, with one pound of beef requiring 2,500 gallons of water to produce (found by Dr. Georg Borgstrom of Michigan State University). So while it might be easy to down a pie at the footy or inhale a snag at Bunnings, (you wouldn’t be Aussie if you didn’t, right?) it’s time we stop and think about the origins of our food and how much it costs the earth to eat that meal.

Firstly, a massive issue is the destruction caused by the meat and dairy industry. The animals that produce our meat, dairy, and eggs take up A LOT of land, due to the enormous amount of space they need for grazing, and the resources to be grown to feed them. This inevitably means that land needs to be cleared. A lot of land.

Consider this: 26% of the earth’s surface area is used for livestock grazing (as stated by the FAO). These had previously been forested areas that had been inhabited by wildlife. It has been calculated that 91% of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has been caused by animal agriculture alone – once flourishing ecosystems that were home to many species of native wildlife have been wiped out for livestock grazing. This leaves these animals without a home, and explains why the leading cause of species extinction is believed to be caused by animal agriculture.

Comparatively, plant-based diets, or even reducing the amount of meat we eat, is a much more efficient and sustainable way of feeding our population. Plants requires significantly less land to produce than meat, and takes out the secondary process of producing food to feed livestock. According to the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation, in 2005, 11.5 million tonnes of cereal grain were used to feed livestock, whereas only 1.6 million tonnes were for human consumption in Australia. This gives an insight into the sheer volume of resources being expended on animal agriculture. With over 900 million people living in extreme poverty (according to UNICEF), it seems illogical and unjust to be wasting precious resources on animal agriculture, in order to provide a portion of the world’s population meat and dairy. The World Hunger Program at Brown University calculated that a vegetarian diet, if equally distributed without any grain fed to livestock, could feed 6 billion people. However, a meat-based diet would only be enough to feed 2.6 billion people. With the world’s population continually booming, our diet is becoming not only a question of sustainability, but also a question of equity.

It makes sense with the amount of resources livestock are consuming, they’re also going to be excreting a lot of waste – waste that has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, the excrement doesn’t just conveniently disappear. A substantial amount of livestock waste end up in rivers and are carried out into the ocean, wreaking all sorts of havoc. Rivers carrying livestock waste have unnaturally high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, causing excessive amounts of algae which lead to oxygen depletion in the water. This is known as “ocean dead zones” where there is simply not enough oxygen in the water to support marine life. The most famous is the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, which was recorded to be 8,776 miles long and is the size of New-Jersey.

Finally, the meat and dairy industry is responsible for an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, one of the main causes of climate change, from animal agriculture is a concern. Considering the large energy demands in feeding, storing, killing, packaging and transporting farmed animals, fossil fuels are required to be burned and in turn are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A study by the University of Chicago has shown that eating a vegan diet reduces more greenhouse gas emissions than switching from a normal car to a hybrid, emphasising the sheer volume of CO2 produced by animal agriculture. However, what’s even more concerning is the methane and nitrous oxide produced by farmed animals, which are both considerably more potent than CO2. Cows in particular (and some other animals such as sheep) produce methane during digestion, and release it through burping and flatulence. The problem is, methane is more than 20 times more powerful than carbon-dioxide as a heat-trapping gas, which is definitely not helping in terms of global warming.

Fortunately, eating a plant-based diet or even reducing the amount of meat we eat is not as scary as it seems! Like any change, it helps to ease into it rather than biting off more than you can chew- start by partaking in “Meatless Mondays”, or even swapping red-meat for a meat that has less of an impact on the environment, such as chicken. Making vegetables the focus of a meal is a a great way to reduce meat consumption (and get your five serves a day of veggies!). Try experimenting with alternative sources of protein such as beans, lentils, tofu, and tempeh. Considering alternative milks and yoghurts instead of cow’s milk is another way to give cows a break. Thankfully, veggo meals can be just as appetising, and as more and more options are becoming available, eating a plant-based diet is easier than ever.

There is an undeniable rise in plant-based diets. People are becoming more and more aware of not only the environmental impacts of the meat and dairy industry, but also their own health and animal rights. Being aware of these impacts and making an effort to reduce meat consumption is a big step to reducing our footprint on this earth. Even Albert Einstein (a pretty old dude) once said “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” So keep turning out your lights and powering through your showers, but when you do so have a think about what you can do to really make a difference.

Words by Chelsea Saw