Veganism: Really the Answer to Global Warming?

If you’ve been on social media in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve come across content promoting veganism as way to end global warming. Environmental veganism is the act of cutting animal products out of one’s diet. Its purpose is to reduce human impact on the environment.

This theory is based on the notion that animal-based food production is more harmful to the environment than plant-based food production. But the truth is complicated. There are thousands of factors at play that people must consider before drawing any real conclusions.

The Question of Cows

With recent events such as the blazing fires ripping through the Amazon rainforest, cattle farming has been up for debate. We often hear conflicting information from both sides of the discussion. It’s difficult to determine what is fact or fiction.

Greenhouse Gases

People are generally most concerned with the amount of greenhouse gas emissions livestock farming produces. Recent studies from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have found that the agricultural industry makes up about 8% of the United States’ total yearly emissions. Of this, 3% can be attributed to the beef industry.

Cows burp up methane while food digests in their stomachs. This quality has led people to label them as a major contributor to greenhouse gases.

Methane is far more potent than other greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. That’s due to its ability to trap heat.

On the bright side, methane has a much shorter lifespan than other greenhouse gases. It lasts only 9 years in the atmosphere.

The interesting thing about the methane cows emit is that as long as companies are creating more cattle farms, methane levels in the atmosphere will remain stable and won’t increase.

The same can’t be said about carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide’s lifespan is between 20 and 200 hundred years.

Nitrous oxide is around the 112-year mark. This indicates that reducing emissions from cattle farming is less effective than curbing factories that produce other gases that build up in the atmosphere.

The truth: In a bare-bones estimation, if the entire population of the U.S. completely eliminated beef from their diets, it would result in a 3% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Land Use

The current method of producing meat through factory farming requires much more land than field grazing. Traditional cattle farmers feed cows with grass pastures.

However, factory farms force-feed animals with crops that need to be grown in separate fields. Crops like corn, a staple in a factory-farmed cow’s diet, use up a lot more land.

Per gram, beef production is estimated to use 20 times more land than beans, soy and other protein-rich plants. It also produces 20 times more greenhouse emissions.

It’s easy to see the appeal of halting all beef production in lieu of farming protein-rich plants instead. However, there’s more to this equation than just land use.

The truth: Essentially, we’re wasting land to grow more food to feed our food.

The Benefits of Pasture-Raised Cattle

Cows can do something miraculous: they convert inedible grass into edible meat. On land where growing vegetables or grain is impossible, raising cattle is an invaluable use of resources for humans.

Before factory farming became the norm around the world, the primary method of feeding cows was to let them graze in open areas with an abundance of grass. This all changed when production needs warranted the mass cultivation of cattle at faster rates to increase profit.

When cows graze naturally, they turn land that is otherwise useless into something usable. Hillsides or areas with rocky and poor soil have more potential for food production. While cows graze in this environment, they produce manure which can then be used to fertilize crops and produce more food.

The truth: Ending cattle production isn’t necessarily beneficial. Instead, we can change how we farm them.

The Efficiency of Factory Farming

In the U.S., all cows begin their lives on pasture lands. After they reach a certain age, they are either taken to a feedlot where they finish their lives on a corn diet, or they are left in the fields.

What’s interesting is that while a feedlot is a form of “factory farming”, it is in many ways more eco-friendly than rearing cattle on pasturelands.

When cows are fed a corn diet, they ruminate far less than they do while eating grass. They also reach maturity much faster. Cattle that’s raised on just grass reaches maturity in around 24 months, while cattle that eats corn matures in almost half that amount of time.

Cows that take longer to reach maturity spend more time burping and releasing methane into the atmosphere. We can then safely conclude that cattle raised only on pasture lands end up contributing to greenhouse gas emissions far more than factory farming.

However, the thousands of environmental factors surrounding the impact of the agricultural industry makes this question complicated, to say the least.

The truth: A simple solution is to eat less beef. If the average American reduced their annual beef consumption by 50%, it would eliminate the need for agricultural expansion for the next 50 years.

The Story of the Amazon Rainforest

If we switch to purely pasture-fed cattle, we are still contributing to environmental degradation on some level. There are many instances of companies clearing forests to create extra pasture lands for cows to graze.

This is often the situation in many South American countries, where companies have significantly harmed pieces of the Amazon rainforest in the name of food production.

In 2019, the world watched in dismay as fires destroyed large swaths of the Amazon rainforest. In part, farmers caused that by clearing forest for their grazing cattle.

This event caught the attention of the media and ignited the discussion on environmental veganism once again. Many activists have called for veganism as a solution to curbing the destruction of the Amazon.

While these farmers are indeed destroying the Amazon, they are only doing so due to the failures of regulatory bodies. The Amazon’s destruction in Brazil saw a sharp decline in the mid-2000s after the government forcibly protected it against deforestation. These actions caused the rate of deforestation in the area to drop by as much as 80% and was a resounding success.

The success story came to a grinding halt in 2016 when rates of deforestation shot up to numbers that were higher than ever before. The present-day government of Brazil has unapologetically supported the rollback of environmental protections. Their allowance of cattle farmers to clear forests and destroy habitats in an effort to produce more meat has had devastating effects.

The truth: While the finger can easily be pointed at cattle farmers, the bigger culprit is a lack of regulatory control. Once environmental laws are reversed, the land they once protected becomes a free-for-all.

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Consuming Other Animals

Pigs, chickens, sheep and goats are all part of the pro-veganism equation too, but we often hear little about them. These animals generally reach maturity faster and with fewer feed requirements than their beefy counterparts. In short, these animals are considerably more efficient and less demanding on the environment.

This is good news for those who love meat. Eating a chicken curry instead of a steak dinner significantly lessens the overall environmental impact of your meal. Swapping out beef for another protein source is great for the environment and your health.

Meat Satisfies Our Nutritional Needs

Meat is a nutrient-dense food that supplies the body with many necessary things in a very effective way. Although some in the vegan community may claim that humans are not meant to eat animal products, the human body actually requires nutrients that can only be found in animals.

Nutrients such as vitamin D3, vitamin B12, creatine, DHA and taurine are all found exclusively in animal products and cannot be found in plant-based foods. For this reason, eating animal products is essential to human health. While supplements that can satisfy these nutritional needs do exist, animal products are something our bodies have evolved to consume regularly.

When it comes to animal products, they are the most nutrient-dense foods per 100 grams. Beef liver is pound for pound the most nutritious food available to man and delivers tons of protein, vitamins and minerals. Of the ten most nutritious food sources available to humans, six of them are animal products.

The truth: While nutritional supplements are available for vegans, consuming animal products is still the quickest and easiest way to keep your body healthy.

The Disadvantages of Consuming Meat

While consuming animal products is better for our health overall, it’s still not without its own set problems. One primary example is the gross overconsumption of meat in most Western countries.

The picture isn’t exactly rosy: overeating red meat is linked to several health conditions such as an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and obesity. Like anything, too much of a good thing can quickly warp into something dangerous.

The World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating no more than three portions (12–18oz) of red meat a week. This is far less than the average American eats and is associated with a host of health benefits.

When it comes to other meats (such as poultry), humans rarely need more than a single, small portion of meat per day, or even every second day. This amount of meat per week could be safely dropped to much lower numbers if supplementation and protein-rich foods are regularly consumed.

The truth: Over-consuming red meat is not great for our health. It’s much better to choose light meat, fish, plants or dairy when making a meal. These sources of protein also have a significantly reduced environmental footprint compared to red meat.

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The Relationship Between Animals and Plants

Animals and crops have a symbiotic relationship. In a perfect system, the waste produced by the crops is used to feed the animals, while the waste the animals produce is used to fertilize the crops.

Basically, it’s the “circle of life”. Farms that incorporate both crops and animals work like mini ecosystems and replicate the natural life cycle animals share with plants.

When people remove animals from this equation, crops lose a valuable fertilizer that companies now need to produce. This ultimately uses more resources and releases more emissions.

Additionally, companies now need to dispose of the waste matter from crops, which they would’ve fed to the animals, and they often burn it, releasing carbon dioxide into the air.

Unfortunately, modern methods of farming in the Western world have drifted away from this natural model. Many farms in developed countries have become industrialized and seldom utilize the natural life cycle of crops and animals. In the pursuit of efficiency, it’s often impractical to adopt these models on larger scale.

The truth: It’s more beneficial for the environment to raise crops and animals together. They are mutually beneficial to one another and work harmoniously to provide essential nutrients that may otherwise be wasted or turned into greenhouse gas emissions.

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What is “Carrying Capacity” and Why is it Important?

Carrying capacity is the number of people, animals, or crops which a region can support without environmental degradation. It takes several factors into consideration and is by far the best measure of how sustainable a diet is when you compare it to others.

Carrying capacity looks at a piece of land and asks, “How much food could someone realistically produce from this?”. It compares the amount of graze-able and fertile land with the amount of food that farms could produce using varying ratios of animals to crops.

More importantly, it also takes into factor the nutrition and calories each kilogram of food produced contains. After all, a kilogram of beef will keep you going for far longer than a kilogram of lettuce.

A Vegan Diet isn’t Better for the Environment

After crunching the numbers and taking an in-depth look at all the factors, studies didn’t find a vegan diet to have the highest carrying capacity. Surprising as it may be, a vegan diet has a lower carrying capacity than some omnivorous and vegetarian diets. Ultimately, veganism is only ranked as the fifth highest carrying capacity diet.

Types of Diets

  • Omnivore: eats an equal combination of meat, plants, fish and dairy
  • Scaling omnivore: 20-80% of meals are omnivore, while the remaining meals are vegetarian or vegan
  • Vegetarian: eats an equal combination of plants and dairy
  • Lacto-vegetarian: eats an equal combination of plants and dairy but excludes eggs
  • Vegan: eats only plants

The Data

Diet Carrying capacity (% of population fed)
100% omnivore 151%
80% omnivore 178%
60% omnivore 217%
40% omnivore 244%
20% omnivore 249%
Vegetarian 255%
Lacto-vegetarian 261%
Vegan 238%

The results show a diet with low to modest meat consumption does in fact have the highest carrying capacity. This is due to several factors, but one of the most important is that graze-able but infertile land cannot produce crops suitable for a vegan diet. The land is ultimately wasted as it’s unusable for food production.

Interestingly, the diet with the highest carrying capacity was the lacto-vegetarian diet, which incorporates the use of cows for dairy production and excludes the consumption of eggs.

A diet that is 40% omnivorous and 60% vegetarian or vegan is still more efficient in land use than that of a fully vegan diet. However, a fully omnivorous diet is the most inefficient in land use by a considerable margin.

The truth: A lacto-vegetarian diet has the highest carrying capacity, beating out veganism. Based on the ratio of usable land-to-calorie production, a lacto-vegetarian diet has the smallest environmental impact of them all.

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Changing Our Diets for the Better

Based on the evidence, it seems that switching to a fully vegan diet isn’t the answer to our world’s environmental ills. The best diet plan involves reducing your consumption of meat (especially beef) in lieu of dairy, plants and other sources of protein.

Meat lovers can find a happy medium in a “meat-free” work week. By sticking to a vegetarian diet during business hours and indulging in lean meats on the weekend, you can greatly reduce your environmental impact while still enjoying your food.

A simple reduction of meat consumption is far more realistic and achievable than asking society to become wholly lacto-vegetarian. If we still allow companies to produce meat, we’ll also address the nutritional needs of society far better than on a diet that excludes it.

Another benefit is that it’ll protect important byproducts of the meat industry, such as the employment it creates.

Reducing your meat consumption comes with a host of benefits for humans, animals and the planet alike, and (like investing in solar and other renewable energy sources) is a great way of making a difference. If you’ve decided to become vegan for environmental reasons, you’re still contributing positively.

Ultimately, a fully omnivorous diet is the worst option to choose out of the bunch. At the end of the day, each small step is one in the right direction.

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