We have evolved into a meat-loving, dairy-addicted, protein-obsessed population, disconnected from our food and the sources of our food. We eat steaks and fish, drink milk and consume eggs without even questioning where this ‘food’ comes from and what processing it has undergone before it ended up in its neat plastic packaging in the supermarket or on our plates. This habit of ignorance and lack of enquiry has many more consequences than we might first think. Through the food we buy in the supermarkets and consume every day, we have a profound impact on the industrial food system, the planet’s ecosystems that have given us life and the very future of our own species. A plant based diet is not only beneficial to our health, it also has a clear impact on sustainability, the ecosystems of the world and the inhabitants we share this planet with.
While the current world population has enough habitable land to survive, it may not seem concerning that 45% of land on Earth is used to feed and raise the animals that have become a major source of our food¹. However, it does become concerning when we consider that this isn’t just any land, it is the land that is vital for the survival of humankind, millions of animal and plant species and the planet itself. 91% of Amazon rainforest destruction is due to clearance for animal agriculture¹. The rainforests are not only home to many animal and plant species, but this large area is responsible for eliminating the carbon dioxide from our atmosphere¹. Just like a human cannot survive without lungs, the planet is unlikely to survive for long once its rainforests have been completely cleared – let alone be a habitat fit for humans to thrive.
The Earth’s land is not the only part of the planet that is threatened by our current animal product consumption; the Earth’s waters and their inhabitants are also at risk. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers needed to produce food for farm animals are poisoning natural waters. Excessive algae growth, in response to the chemicals, deplete oxygen, which creates areas where marine life can simply not be supported². In addition to the death by poisoning of marine life , ¾ of the fisheries in the world are depleted and at this rate we will probably have oceans without fish by 2048¹. As if contaminating the ocean wasn’t enough, animal agriculture consumes more than 1/5 of the world’s fresh water¹ as well. This is not a surprising when you consider that the production of 1 pound of beef requires over almost 10,000 litres of water 1. With global warming and melting polar ice caps of fresh water, it seems like a bad idea to poison and inappropriately use our existing fresh water stores for animal agriculture.
Speaking of global warming and climate change, animal agriculture, fueled by our meat and dairy consumption, doesn’t really help here. When we think of pollution and greenhouse gas emission, we think of large factories, transportation and industry- not animal agriculture. However, studies suggest that at least 18% of greenhouse gas emission comes from animal agriculture- this is more than that of all transportation combined³. By 2050, this number is expected to increase to 80% ¹. Methane and nitrous oxide emission from livestock are more destructive than carbon dioxide, which only adds to the existing problem¹. It’s hard to ignore the impact of our actions, including our dietary choices, when we see the effects on our planet.
In terms of the environmental imprint, a person with a plant based diet produces ½ of carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th of oil, 1/13th of water, and 1/18th land compared to a person with the standard meat and dairy diet¹. And you thought you couldn’t make a difference.
In addition to the environmental issues we are creating, future generations will have to tackle additional problems created by our current habits. The world population is expected to rise to 9-10 billion by 20504, which also means there will be more mouths to feed. Climate change will continue to reduce the world’s viable agricultural land and food security will become a major concern. Inefficient, wasteful and land destroying animal agriculture to feed meat eating populations will not be sustainable with the limited resources. We simply cannot feed this growing population with an animal based diet while continuing to destroy and deplete natural land and resources. Our planet has allowed our species to survive by providing us with the resources necessary and meeting our needs, but with our present actions, it will not be able to meet the needs of future generations.
If the environmental benefits of a plant based diet aren’t convincing enough to consider changing your diet, maybe the health benefits can sway your opinions. Just like any diet, a plant-based diet can be healthy or unhealthy. However, research has shown that a balanced, whole food, plant-based diet has several health benefits that should not be overlooked just because bacon tastes nice. A vegan diet is linked to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower risk of stroke and ischaemic heart disease and protection from several types of cancers5. However, when eating this type of diet it is important to be aware of common nutrient deficiencies. These can easily be avoided by being mindful of your diet, and possibly using plant-based substitutes. It is also important to consider future health problems we will encounter as probable food shortages will lead to more susceptible, malnourished populations and increased diet related diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes linked to unhealthy diets and obesity will affect greater proportions of populations all over the globe. Once we understand what our food contains and how to obtain nutrients from healthier sources, eating a plant based diet is not difficult, nor does it deprive people of necessary nutrients. Plants can provide us with everything we need (except vitamin B12), and contain protective properties for our health.
Our own health problems and the difficulties future generations will encounter as a result of our current diets are not the only health crises our current practices contribute to. Agricultural antibiotics contribute to antibiotic resistance, a public health crisis that is only growing with the increased use of antimicrobials. The animals we consume are pumped full of antibiotics needed to fight the diseases that these animals encounter in their overcrowded and unsanitary living environments. Medications are used to help the animals grow faster, to fight infections and prevent death. Frequently antibiotics are used as a preventative measure rather than a treatment, thus are administered unnecessarily. These antibiotics not only get passed onto us through our food supply, but also contribute to the not-so-small colony of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Studies have found that 11,000 tonnes of antimicrobials are used for nontherapeutic agricultural purposes in comparison to the 1400 tonnes used in human medicine 6. Another study suggests there will be an increase of 67% in worldwide antimicrobial consumption between 2010 and 20307. This increase will be supported by the rise in factory farms using antimicrobials for the animals raised to feed us. Limited consumption of an individual may not have a massive impact of the use of antibiotics in agriculture, but a population level decrease in meat and dairy consumption, decreased demand for these products and a protest against the inappropriate use of these antibiotics would be a start to addressing this public health crises looming over our heads.
Apart from the animal cruelty we are taught to ignore and accept as normal, the massive environmental destruction and climate change contribution, the ever growing antibiotic resistance crisis and the countless health problems associated with the consumption of animal products, your meat, fish, dairy and egg rich diet is great. I would still recommend considering switching to a more sustainable and Earth friendly plant based or at least vegetarian diet. We need to make better decisions about what food we consume and realize that with every item of food we have a direct impact on much more than just our taste buds. We do not have the right to destroy the Earth we inherited from previous generations; by doing so we are simply borrowing it from future generations and sharing it with all the other inhabitants of this planet.
- Facts and Sources. COWSPIRACY. 2017. Available from: http://www.cowspirary.com/facts/
- Biello D. Oceanic Dead Zones Continue to Spread. Scientific American. 2008. Available from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/oceanic-dead-zones-spread/
- Steinfeld H. Livestock’s long shadow. Rome. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; 2006.
- 2017 Revision of World Population Prospects. United Nations DESA/Population Division; 2017.
- Craig W. Health effects of vegan diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009: 89(5):1627S-1633S.
- Landers T, Cohen B, Wittum T, Larson E. A Review of Antibiotic Use in Food Animals: Perspective, Policy, and Potential. Public Health Reports. 2012:127(1):4-22.
- Van Boeckel T, Brower C, Gilbert M, Grenfell B, Levin S, Robinson T et al. Global trends in antimicrobial use in food animals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2015:112(18):5649-5654.