When looking at ways to lead a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, I have often thought about reducing my drive to work by cycling part of the way. Achieving the same reduction in my carbon footprint through simply cutting animal products out of my diet, even if only a couple of days a week, seems like a surprisingly simple option, writes Sarah our Project Assistant.
What do the words ‘Carbon footprint’ bring to mind? Fossil fuels, energy and water usage are all terms commonly associated with it, but it is only in the last few years that the environmental impact of food production has started to enter into the equation. This November, as part of World Vegan Month, here at St Nicks we have decided to take a closer look at the environmental benefits of adopting a plant-based diet.
Indeed, according to Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security, 30% of all greenhouse gases are created through agriculture and the production of food (primarily from livestock farming) – this is more than emissions related to transport, washing and heating combined. A study of British people’s diets by the University of Oxford found that a meat rich diet (eating more than 100g of meat per day) contributed 7.2kg of CO2 emissions per day, far higher than a vegetarian (3.8kg of CO2 per day) or vegan diet (2.9kg of CO2 per day).
So what is it about animal production that makes it so damaging to the environment? It will come as no surprise to viewers of environmental campaign films such as Cowspiracy that cows are one of the main offenders: one kilo of beef produces the equivalent of 27kg CO2, which equates to driving 63 miles! (see below for a handy chart by Greeneatz). Other animal products such as dairy, although consumed in smaller quantities, don’t fare much better compared to equivalent plant-based sources of protein:
It’s worth noting the reason why all these figures are given as CO2 equivalents: because it is not just CO2 that is emitted during food production. One aspect that makes livestock farming so polluting is the quantities of methane gas – 23 times more harmful than CO2 – released by livestock while nitrous oxide emissions released through intensive agriculture are believed to be 300 times more powerful in their effects on warming the climate. According to the Economist, switching to a vegan diet could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 70%.
Another powerful argument for going vegan is that consuming animal products is an inefficient way for humans to get protein: disproportionate amounts of land are given over to grazing (25% of land worldwide) or growing crops to feed animals (a third of farm land) which are then fed to humans. The world’s cows eat enough food to feed 9 billion people! As environmental journalist and campaigner George Monbiot argues, a plant based diet would reduce the clearance of natural vegetation – it is estimated that only 3m hectares of land would be needed to support the UK population compared to the 11m hectares needed for livestock farming, an area that could easily be cultivated within the UK. In light of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit’s effect on our food industry, this is perhaps an even more pertinent argument for incorporating more meat free days into our diet. In addition, Monbiot argues that the resulting land no longer needed for farming land could be given over to nature conservation.
The amount of water used in food production is another contributing factor to the negative environmental impacts of livestock farming: an astonishing 2350l of water is needed to produce one 150g beef burger while the cultivation of grains, fruit and vegetables requires a fraction of that amount – 70l for one apple for example. Even 1 litre of milk requires 1050 litre of water. Once again, it comes back to the inefficiency surrounding livestock farming: a far larger crop yield – and therefore water to grow said crops – is needed to feed livestock which are then fed to humans compared to the crop yield needed to feed humans directly. In John Robbin’s book ‘Diet for a New America’, he shows the average daily water footprint of a vegan to be 10% of that of a meat-eater. Water is such a limited resource imagine the difference we could make by simply taking animal products out of the equation.
Interestingly, when people first started talking about the negative environmental impact of food, the focus was often on food miles (the distance a food product has travelled from producer to consumer) yet food transportation only contributes around 11% of the greenhouse gas emissions involved in food production.
It is easy to get disheartened by all the evidence surrounding the damage the food industry does to the environment. I certainly did researching this blog, but then I started to feel empowered as I realised that, unlike many of the decisions about the environment made on a national scale (renewable energy, divesting from fossil fuels, etc), what goes in my shopping basket each week is under my control. By making simple changes to my diet I can make a significant difference to my personal carbon footprint. You don’t have to go cold turkey (forgive the pun) on animal products overnight, but through easy initiatives such as Meat Free Monday or Veganuary you can gradually introduce changes. So why not check out some easy vegan recipes, visit One Planet York for information on local sustainable food and give a plant based diet a go this November for World Vegan Month?