Everyone’s doing it. Lewis Hamilton, Liam Hemsworth, Bill Clinton. Veganism is on the rise. Leonardo DiCaprio is even investing his money in Beyond Meat – A company creating plant based alternatives to animal proteins. Plant based diets are becoming a social phenomenon as veganism and vegetarianism have reached a new cultural salience. This saliency is predominant in everyday language.
There has been an explosion in new dietary terminology. The term ‘Flexitarian’, a word coined to describe those reducing the quantity of meat they eat – whilst allowing for occasional meaty meals, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014. A UK charity named under the portmanteau ‘Veganuary’ was also launched in 2014, and promotes the adoption of a vegan diet for the month of January. This year over 165,000 people pledged their support.
According to a 2017 study by the research agency Mintel, 28% of adults in the UK have cut back on meat and poultry in the six months leading up to March 2017. A further one in seven adults are interested in limiting or reducing their consumption. Meet free food markets have bolstered, with sales growth rising 4% in 2016 and expected to grow further over the next five years1. But why?
Regardless of the fact there is an obvious cognitive dissonance between the food on our plate and its origins, and that many people cut their consumption from an animal rights perspective or for the array of health benefits, some choose to reduce or eliminate their animal product consumption for environmental purposes. There are a multitude of environmental issues to be aware of when it comes to diet choice, but many consist of concerns with climate change and land and water use.
The planet’s population is increasing, and with it a growth in meat consumption. By 2050 we will require almost twice the amount of cropland currently used to feed the population2. A huge 68% of the worlds agricultural land is used for livestock3 and 33% of global cropland is used for livestock feed production4. A recent study by American scientists suggests that global calorie availability would be increased by up to 70% by shifting crops away from animal feed to human consumption, with which we could feed an extra four billion people2.
The water used by the livestock sector accounts for 8% of human water use. It isn’t only used for consumption by livestock, it’s also needed to irrigate the crop land needed for
animal feed. In developed and emerging countries, livestock is a leading source of water pollution. The run off from manure contains nutrients, drug residues, heavy metals and pathogens which enter streams, polluting waters. High doses of animal waste in surface waters is also a cause of algal blooms which can damage marine environments3.
A quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are a product of the food system and 80% of this is linked to livestock production (a larger share than the transport sector)5. The agricultural industry is also responsible for a large proportion of land use change and deforestation in order to expand pastures an increase arable land for feed crops4.
GHG emissions differ extensively amongst food types. Plant based foods have lower GHG emissions than animal based foodstuffs. For example, the emissions from a gram of protein from beef are 250 higher than a gram of protein from legumes6.
In order to alleviate climate change a transition is necessary to attain a low-carbon society, with consumption producing lower levels of GHGs. Considerable results can be achieved through changes in the Western diet. A global transition toward low-meat diets may reduce the costs of climate change mitigation by as much as 50% by 20507.
Moving from a high meat diet to a vegetarian diet would reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by 1230kg of carbon dioxide every year, and adopting a vegan diet would reduce an individual’s footprint by 1560kg per year! Incredibly, from simply moving from a meat diet to that of a ‘flexitarian’, an individual would reduce their carbon footprint by 920kg of carbon dioxide every year. That is just short of the emissions produced by an individual flying from London to New York and back! If meat intake is cut by half – An individual could cut their carbon footprint by 35%8. So let’s all beef up (sorry), jump on the bandwagon, and cut the carbon, even if it’s just for one day a week.
1. Mintel (2017) ‘Meat-free Foods – UK – October 2017’. Available at: http://academic.mintel.com/display/796253/?highlight (Accessed: 10 November 2017).
2. Cassidy, E.S., West, P.C., Gerber, J.S. and Foley, J.A., 2013. Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare. Environmental Research Letters, 8(3), p.034015
3. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T.D., Castel, V. and de Haan, C., 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Food & Agriculture Org.
4. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2012). Livestock and Landscapes Availale at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/ar591e/ar591e.pdf
5. Springmann, M., Godfray, H.C.J., Rayner, M. and Scarborough, P., 2016. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(15), pp.4146-4151.
6. Tilman, D. and Clark, M., 2014. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature, 515(7528), pp.518-522.
7. De Boer, J., de Witt, A. and Aiking, H., 2016. Help the climate, change your diet: A cross-sectional study on how to involve consumers in a transition to a low-carbon society. Appetite, 98, pp.19-27.
8. Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A., Briggs, A.D., Travis, R.C., Bradbury, K.E. and Key, T.J., 2014. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic change, 125(2), pp.179-192.