One of my favorite things about writing a regular eco-travel and environmental column is getting to read the comments that come in. Sometimes readers are complimentary, sometimes they are critical and sometimes they challenge me.
Such is the case with an article I recently wrote on soil and climate change. On one forum, a reader commented, “If you think climate change is a problem but are not vegan, you are seriously confused. ”
He may be right. In 2009, the Worldwatch Institute estimated that livestock contributed more than half of the world’s greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
But is getting most of the planet’s people to eliminate animal products from their diets in order to curb rapid climate change realistic—or best for human health?
The greenhouse gas and meat connection
Fossil fuel use—especially of coal, natural gas and oil—is certainly a major source of human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). But according to a 2009 Worldwatch study, the life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals raised for food (buffalo, camels, cattle, goats, horses, pigs, poultry and sheep) has been vastly underestimated as a source of GHGs: in fact, it accounts for a shocking 51 percent.
The authors of the Worldwatch report state that besides the methane and nitrous oxide released during livestock production, the industrialized livestock industry is also accountable for approximately 75 percent of global deforestation, since forests are cut down to give the animals grazing grounds and to grow soybeans used in feedstock. And beef production alone uses about three-fifths of global farmland, even though it yields less than 5 percent of the world’s protein.
However, it should be pointed out that not all studies have shown the same results as Worldwatch’s. In 2004, the United States Environmental Protection Agency found that agriculture contributed only 14 percent of worldwide GHG emissions. A later, 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization food report pegged that contribution at 18 percent. More recently, in December 2014, Chatham House, an international think tank based in the United Kingdom, published a study that found that greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector account for 14.5 percent of the global total.
But plants are not perfect
Switching to a vegan diet, though, does have its drawbacks. According to Dr. Nancy Rodriguez, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, individuals who stop eating meat and dairy products are at risk of not getting enough calcium, iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, and zinc in their diets—all nutrients that come mostly from food products derived from animals.
Insufficient calcium and vitamin D compromise bone structure, and a lack of zinc can hinder growth in children. Iron and vitamin B12 assist in the production of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen throughout the body. A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to severe anemia, neurological problems, and even paralysis and death.
Plant-based foods, unable to run away from predators, defend themselves by producing chemicals. Many of these compounds, such as lectins and phytic acid, interfere with the digestion of protein and the absorption of minerals, especially calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc. Eating a plant-based diet, then, can prevent you from properly absorbing the nutrients your body needs, so you may have to eat more plant protein to make up for the lower absorption.
Following a plant-based diet—especially one that includes grains such as barley, oats, rye and wheat—can lead to a higher consumption of gluten, which can be problematic for people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
Is a plant-eating world even possible?
Even if it’s desirable and necessary for the environment, getting the world to switch to a vegan diet may be a Sisyphean task. While meat consumption in the United States has fallen, it’s a small decrease compared with a rising demand in China. World meat production is projected to double by 2050.
It’s interesting to note that on August 3, 1953, Albert Einstein wrote in a letter to Max Kariel, “I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience.” After he became a vegetarian, he penned on March 30, 1954, “So I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way. It always seems to me that man was not born to be a carnivore.”
When it comes to a world in the throes of rapid climate change, he—and my reader—may be right.
If governments worldwide started encouraging vegetarianism in their dietary guidelines, do you think could we make a real difference in slowing climate change?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
I live in the SW AZ in general all the cattle here are free range no trees or shrubs are cut down, ecept for the browsing. The waste from the cattle is great for plant growth. On the other note concerning crops. In order to produce them we have hundreds of thousands of acres cleared big massive farming equipment are used every day to take care of them, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, pumps for water, etc. I can see why people think crops have a smaller foot print.
In the traditional livestock keeping areas of Zambia, cutting down trees to facilitate the growth of grass for free range animals is a common practice which drastically reduces the Carbon Zones.
More crops for a Vegan oriented area means increased Carbon Zones – naturally. The biggest challenge as you pointed out is convincing the majority – especially the rich stratum who positively treasure the use of animal products in their daily diets as a symbol of wealth.
Actually, the chemicals used in recent animal production practices reduce the life span of people. one can justify this by referring to our ancestors like Noah, Abraham, let alone Adam – how long they were living on earth. THEY WERE MOSTLY VEGETARIANS.
What about rice wheat corn fields? Palm oil and avocado (other fruit tree) plantations, wine industry… tea coffee cocoa spices … technically all vegan but resulted in destruction of forests…
It is not about vegan or non vegan… it is about policy on forest conservation, land use and mitigation efforts…
There is an excellent documentary out, Cowspiracy, that is not only entertaining but very informative. It covers most of the bases of questions asked in response to the dilemma of why vegan. The intriguing part of the story is why it may even dangerous to ask too many questions about animal agriculture. And it explains why this issue hasn’t been the most important topic for the “environmental” NGOs. Well worth finding and watching!
There are some places where free-range animals are a much more environmentally friendly way to produce food than farming. I now support ZERO factory-farming, and locally based diets that make sense in terms of local ecology. Sometimes that’s vegan, sometimes it isn’t. I’m mostly vegan, myself.
If we are not sure about figures related to animal raising, I guess we don’t have precise ones either for soya-related economy… While waiting for them, I agree that eating local meat can be as sustainable as importing “super foods” from another continent. Everything depends on good old common sense and amount of each food eaten. Unfortunately in a 7-billions people world, it’s difficult that common sense will be still able to make a change.
Going vegan by the millions has caused millions of ha’s to be cleared all over the world so that veggies and vegans can eat tofu- go figure right?
Good article Candice. I hear this point raised often by animal rights enthusiasts: that any serious environmentalist must go vegan. I agree there are huge carbon impacts from industrial meat, however, I argue that No, this is Not The Best thing we can do to combat climate change.
Mark, yes our accounts really are that sloppy. The problem lies in boundaries …IE, are emissions from animal feed transportation included or not? …fertilizers? chemical fertilizer production? Depending on who’s doing the study, many contributors may be included or discarded, ultimately skewing results.
Does eating industrial soy bean products, grown on deforested Amazon rainforest, produced in coal powered factories, then shipped around the world using fossil fuels, really create less climate impacts than eating locally raised grass-fed beef? Absolutely not. It’s a complicated issued.
Meanwhile, home owners consume large amounts of fossil fuel produced electricity every day. Installing home solar on a Canadian home can produce 10,000kWh of clean energy each year – offsetting over 1 tonne of carbon per year. It’s a clear impact that every home owner can make.
Would going Vegan help combat climate change? It certainly would lower livestock GHG emissions if we all were vegetarians. But we would have to put more land under cultivation and since much of what we eat are annual grasses we would encounter CO2 cycles of out-gassing after each growing season. We would also reduce forests to compensate for our increased plant protein needs which would deplete the world’s second largest carbon sink after the ocean.Some might argue that with less cropland devoted to animal feed we would not have to impact forests. But to match the protein from meat in a vegetarian diet would require increasing land under tillage, much of it currently marginal for crops and better suited to grazing.
Whatever diet the less processed the better it is!
Perhaps, but it needs to be healthy vegan. Having read vegan recipes in hopes of finding diabetic friendly recipes, my wife and I were shocked at how unhealthy and highly processed many of the recipes were. Perhaps a better way of stating this is vegan may be a good way of helping the ecology providing the foods are minimally processed with few if any additives i.e. whole foods.
This is a vitally important topic, thanks Candice.
The problem is that ‘doubling by 2050’ is a reality whatever people eat. Diet shifts will only buy a little more time. So the real issue is how to sustainably squeeze that volume out of the global production system.
It is also disturbing that the difference between 51% and 18% is around 11,000,000 kt of emissions — are our accounts really that sloppy?
Nice article; one of the reasons that different reports give differing assessments of the global warming is that there are a variety of gasses involved that have not only a greater or lesser effect when they are present in the atmosphere, but also they have different lifetimes; methane has a half life in the atmosphere of about 7 years and is about 100 times as potent as CO2, which effectively has an unlimited lifetime.
We could all switch to kangaroo, which as I understand it, do not use methanogenic bacteria to digest their food. Or chicken.
Vegan becomes more appealing every time I see an article or video on feed lots or abbattoir cruelty…. 🙁