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4 major ways being vegan helps the environment

Jul. 13, 2017
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Considering Trump’s recent decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, and the 111 mile long ice crack in the arctic threaten to break the ice shelf apart, there perhaps hasn’t been a better time to discuss what individuals can do to help the environment. While it’s important to turn off lights and be conscious of how much water your household uses, these small changes don’t make nearly as much of a difference as going vegan or vegetarian.

I’ll be honest: at the moment, I’m a vegetarian, and while I aspire to be vegan, I haven’t quite been able to cut cheese or eggs out of my diet. So while I don’t fully practice what I preach, I do hope to be vegan within the next few months.

Climate change is the most pressing issue facing humanity and the planet today. While transportation and oil drilling are the scapegoats of how humanity has hurt the environment, the impact of our dietary choices has gone largely unnoticed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a statement in 2006 saying that raising animals for food is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” 

So what is it about livestock that causes such an impact, and how does going vegan help the environment? 

1. It saves water

Animal production uses huge quantities of water for them to drink, to grow crops for their feed, and to process their carcasses. One study found that the production of one kilogram of beef uses 3700 liters of water, the equivalent of 40 baths or 300 toilet flushes—and this is a small estimate. Another study from Cornell University put the water usage for one kilogram of beef closer to 100,000 liters. For comparison, a kilogram of maize uses 77 liters; wheat, 119 liters; and barley, 2174 liters. More than one billion people across the planet are already unable to access enough safe water to meet their needs. As people who have access to an almost endless supply of water, we must make a shift to prioritizing a sustainable diet over a meat-based one.

2. It saves energy

Fossil fuels (oil, gasoline, and coal) release carbon dioxide when burned, creating holes in the ozone layer and contributing to the planet’s rise in temperature. Producing a calorie of animal protein burns about 11 times as much fossil fuel as does producing a calorie of grain protein. A University of Chicago study even showed that you can reduce your carbon footprint more effectively by going vegan for a year than by switching from a conventional car to a hybrid. And that’s just a single year of veganism!

3. It stops contribution to deforestation

Ever heard how the Amazon rainforest loses upwards of 80,000 acres of wildlife everyday? Probably. Did you know that beef production contributes to 65-70% of this deforestation? Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation. In a process known as hamburgerization, cattle graze on cleared land, moving to yet more land once they have destroyed the fertility of the soil. The US alone has lost about a third of its topsoil from factors that include livestock agriculture. To make matters worse, while cattle ranching devastates our earth in this way, the food produced from the livestock is only used to feed a fraction of the world’s population, while many people in underdeveloped countries starve. 

4. It increases the amount of grain available to feed people elsewhere

Hundreds of millions of people around the world are currently suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and yet 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States is fed to livestock. Even animals in poor countries are fed cereal, as well as legumes and vegetables, in order to produce meat and dairy. Each year more than 700 million tons of human-grade food feeds livestock, even though it could instead be used to eradicate world hunger.

Despite the overwhelming case for many people to go vegan, only 3.2% of Americans (or 7.3 million people) are vegetarian, while only .5% (or 1 million) are vegan. Of course, I don’t want to shame anyone into making a lifestyle choice they don’t think would work for them. If you can’t go vegan, or even vegetarian, a good way to start is by being pescatarian, or simply cutting your meat intake to a few meals a week. However, I think it’s important to know the impact our choices have on the planet, because if the benefits of cutting meat convince enough people to go vegan or even just reduce their meat intake, the results could have a major impact on the planet—in a good way!