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How a vegan diet can help protect the environment

by tamarajune
Published: Last Updated on

What we eat affects not only our health and other sentient beings but our planet as well.

A common motivation behind switching to a vegan diet is that it is more environmentally friendly and requires fewer resources. 

In this post, we’ll explore 11 ways in which the consumption of animal products negatively impacts our planet.

We do this to gain a better understanding of how a vegan diet can help protect the environment. 

Let’s dive right in.

1. Feed from one-crop agriculture

Wheat on a white surface

The feed for animal agriculture almost always comes from intensively cultivated farmland. This means that the same plants are grown every year.

To achieve good yields with this type of agriculture, farmers need to use a lot of pesticides and mineral fertilizers.

As a result, excess nitrate, phosphate, and pesticides deposit in the soil and groundwater.

Consequently, the soil becomes more acidic and over-supplied with nutrients. This leads to a decrease in biodiversity and may damage forests.

The deposits in the groundwater can also harm human health. Because when we consume polluted water, we are also exposing our bodies to these potentially harmful compounds. 

Further, the high use of fertilizers promotes the emergence of algae blooms in lakes, making life in these waters hardly or not at all possible.  

Summary:

The feed for animal agriculture almost always comes from monocultures, which require a lot of pesticides and mineral fertilizers. One-crop agriculture also has a variety of other negative consequences. Among those are the loss of biodiversity and the deposit of nitrate, phosphate, and pesticides in the soil and groundwater.

2. GMO soybeans

Soy beans in a grey bowl

In the EU, it’s impossible (or not profitable) to grow enough soybeans to meet the high demands of animal agriculture.

As a result, factory farms have to import 35 million tons of soybeans per year for animal feed.

Many times, imported soybeans are genetically modified. Currently, there are no independent and reliable studies on the effects of genetic engineering.

However, many believe that GMOs can potentially be harmful to the environment and our health.

Further, GMO products promote resistant pests and loss of biodiversity. Another disadvantage is that genetically modified plants spread uncontrollably.

At this point, we also need to make an important distinction: (at least in the EU) the imported soybeans are only used for animal agriculture, not for human consumption.

Thus vegans who consume soy products do not support this practice. 

Summary:

In the EU, 35 million tons of soybeans need to be imported to meet the high demands of animal agriculture. Many of these soybeans are GMO, which may harm the environment and human health. However, (at least in the EU) soybeans for human consumption are usually grown locally and are GMO-free. 

3. Manure

Manure on a acre

The sheer amount of manure that is “produced” by animal agriculture puts a massive strain on our planet.

Further, the use of manure as fertilizer is problematic because it leads to an over-supply of nitrate and phosphate.

These compounds then deposit in the soil and groundwater, causing many other problems, some of which we already discussed in point # 1. 

Summary:

Animal agriculture “produces” more manure than our planet can handle. Further, the use of manure as fertilizer is problematic because it leads to the deposit of nitrate and phosphate in the soil and groundwater. 

4. Use of copper for pig fattening

Copper on a large roll

Farmers often use feed that is enriched with copper to make pigs bigger and fatter.

Through excretion, the copper than leaks into the soil and negatively impacts soil fertility, among others.

5. The use of antibiotics in animal agriculture 

Various pills on a white surface

Antibiotics are routinely used in factory farms. A primary reason is that animals have to live in small and unsanitary quarters.

If they didn’t receive antibiotics regularly, they would get sick all the time, and many would die.

This is problematic in many ways. One is that the expelled antibiotics enter the environment causing more pathogenic microorganisms to become antibiotics-resistant.

Consequently, antibiotics lose their effectiveness.

Moreover, when humans consume products made from animals that received antibiotics, they take in these antibiotics as well. 

Summary

Antibiotics are routinely used in animal agriculture. They keep animals alive despite the unhygienic circumstances they live in, which promotes antibiotics-resistance. 

6. Emissions

Factory expelling emissions

Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector, including cars, ships, planes, trucks, etc. (18% vs. 13%). 

In part, this is due to cows producing a lot of methane (2/3 of the emissions come from the production of beef and milk). Over 20 years, methane is 25x-100x more harmful than CO2.

Animal transport also contributes to emissions because the breeding, rearing, fattening, slaughtering of animals as well as packing all occur in separate plants. 

According to a new Oxford University study, by not eating animal products, a person can reduce their carbon footprint by 73%.

Summary:

Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector (18% vs. 13%). The production of beef and milk causes ⅔ of the emission. Animal transport also plays a role because breeding, rearing, fattening, slaughtering, packing of all take place in separate plants. 

7. Overfished oceans

Fish swimming in the ocean

A sad fact is that 30% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, and 60% are exploited to the maximum.

It is also tragic that with fishing, not only the fish for human consumption die but also many other water creatures that get caught in the nets.

Estimations state that per 500 g of fish of the target species up to 2.5 kg of bycatch is captured, killed, and disposed of.

The overfishing, including bycatch, results in a decrease in the ocean’s biodiversity. This puts a heavy burden on the ecosystem and the environment. 

Consequently, oceans provide less and less “food,” the water quality decrease, and the climate is less regulated.

Summary:

30% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, and 60% are exploited to the maximum. In addition to overfishing, there is also a lot of bycatch, which burdens the ocean’s ecosystem. As a result, the oceans are able to provide less “food,” the water quality decreases, and the climate is less regulated. 

8. Increased energy and resources requirements 

Power lines with the sun setting

To provide animal products, 35x more energy must be put in than is later available as energy in the form of calories. Deep-sea fishing requires 250x more energy!.

This high demand for resources puts a substantial burden on our planet and can’t be maintained for the long term. 

In contrast, the cultivation, transport, and processing of fruit only requires two times more energy than is later available for consumption.

Naturally,  these numbers vary depending on the kind of food, where it was grown, the local climate, and so on.

Still, in general, you can say that a vegan diet is much more energy and resource-efficient

However, there is one exception: vegetables and fruits from greenhouses. These require up to 575x more energy than they later provide. 

So, to help protect the environment further, we should try not to buy vegetables and fruits grown in greenhouses. We can do this, for example, by focusing on eating seasonal produce. 

Summary:

The production of animal products requires a lot more energy than is later available in the form of calories. Plant foods only need a little more than they provide. The only exceptions are fruits and vegetables from greenhouses. 

9. Depletion of water resources

Water surface with droplets emerging from it

Producing animal products requires a lot of water. The meat and milk production alone requires 1/3 of all freshwater resources. 

It can be hard to imagine just how much water is needed, so here is a common illustration:

It takes approximately as much water to make one (!) hamburger patty as a person needs to shower for two months. 

Naturally, growing plants also requires water, but most of the time, it is far less. Let’s take a look at an example: 

The production of 1 kg of beef requires 15400 L of water, and 1 kg of pork requires 6000 L. In comparison, 1 kg soybeans require about 2200 L and 1 kg potatoes 290 L.

So, replacing animal products with plant foods can save a lot of water and help conserve this valuable resource.

Summary:

Animal agriculture requires enormous amounts of water. The growing of plants usually requires far less water. Thus, choosing plants instead of animal products can help preserve our freshwater resources. 

10. Deforestation of the rainforest

A view into the rainforest as an example of how a vegan diet can help protect the environment

Every second 1-2 acres of rainforest are destroyed.

Rainforests are characterized by their biodiversity and the unique plants and living creatures that inhabit it.

They also play a crucial role in climate protection by helping to reduce greenhouse gases and slowing global warming. 

 91% of rainforest deforestation occurs to make room for animal agriculture or to grow grains and soybeans for animal feed. 

11. Processing losses

Corn growing in a field

Similar to a previous point, a lot of energy is lost when “inferior” plant foods are processed into animal products. 

For example, people can eat grains directly (f.e. rice). However, if grains are used as animal feed, and humans use the animals as a food source, a lot of energy is lost.

To illustrate: you need 7 kg of grain to “produce” one kg of beef. With one kg of beef, a four-person household (depending on the dish) can cook 1-2 meals.

But with 7 kg of grain, the family could prepare lots of dishes.

So if we were to consume the crops directly instead of using it as animal feed, there would be more to eat. 

In addition, less farmland would be necessary because per field more people could be fed.

For example, about 170 kg of meat can be produced with one and a half acre farmland.

If we used the same space to grow plants for direct consumption, the harvest would be almost 17,000 kg.

What about sustainable animal agriculture?

Filed with wind turbines in the background

A separate post would be necessary to discuss this topic in detail. But in short, sustainable animal agriculture is a myth.

There are many reasons for this, including that even with “sustainable agriculture,” more manure accumulates than our planet can handle.

Also, “sustainable farmed livestock” needs more space, which means even more rainforest has to be cut down.

Moreover, meat consumption worldwide is currently so high that it would not be possible to meet the demand with sustainable animal farming. 

Summary: How a vegan diet can help protect the environment

Infographic summarizing how a vegan diet can help protect the environment by describing 11 ways animal agriculture harms the environemnt

Want to learn how a vegan diet can improve your health? Check out this article on the health benefits of a vegan diet.

What are some ways you try to protect the environment?

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