The ever-increasing concern that is climate change has led many of us to question how, as individuals, we can make an impact on its delay.  One of the most common answers that gets thrown at us is whether we should become vegan. For example, one study has shown that if everyone went vegan, the world’s food-related emissions would drop 70% by 2050. So why is being vegan one of the best options we can do as individuals and is it really that good?

Becoming vegan is a huge life-style change so we want to know that there’s good reason for doing it. The problems of climate change are endless and complex, but food contributes to it considerably. The way we grow our food is unsustainable due to huge amounts of land being deforested in order to rear cattle. But the food that is needed to feed these cattle takes up a huge amount of land, in fact, one study has shown that half of habitable land is used for agriculture.

So how does land affect climate change? Well, it’s what was once on that land: trees. Trees are seen as the ‘lungs’ of our planet, and help to maintain a diverse eco-system. They not only take in carbon dioxide, but they store it in their trunks, roots, and in the earth. So, when these trees get chopped down, not only do they stop taking in CO2, but they also release a lot into the atmosphere. Deforestation happens to create space for land to rear cattle and the food that is grown to feed these cattle and other livestock such as chickens. There is often an assumption that eating chicken is less harmful to the environment than eating beef. However, nowadays chicken is consumed more than beef. There are three chickens for every person on the planet. To feed this amount of chickens requires a lot of soy to be grown, which also intensifies deforestation. By avoiding eating meat or dairy as much as possible you are lessening your contribution to this unsustainable production of food. 

To keep up with Western habits of eating a meat-fuelled diet a LOT of cows need to be bred and fed. Just from belching cows globally produce 150 billion gallons of methane a day. Methane is often forgotten about when talking about climate change, but it is 20 times more powerful at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When heat is trapped this leads to rising sea levels as well as drastic changes in weather patterns, leading to more environmental disasters such as hurricanes.

On top of these troubling facts, there is also the water-consumption issue. The world is rapidly running out of drinking water and yet to produce just one hamburger, on average, 3,140 litres of water are used. To produce 10 burgers, this requires the same amount of water as an entire year’s worth of showers for one person. Growing plants uses a lot less water than it does for meat because we are taking out the ‘middle-man’ that is meat. Plants are grown to feed animals which are bred to feed humans. But certain animals such as cows need a lot more food to grow than humans do. If humans ate less meat then there would be less need for so much water consumption and land use for agriculture. Becoming vegan isn’t necessarily the answer, but by reducing our weekly consumption of beef and dairy we are diminishing our contribution to this CO2 production and our water intake. 

But don’t certain plant-based products also require a lot of water? And what about the amount of CO2 that is required for these products to be exported to other countries, such as the UK? 

The answer is yes. There are certain products that are plant-based and still use a lot of water. For example, to grow a single avocado it is estimated that 140 litres of water is needed. To import these they are often flown by air, which produces around 2.2Kg of CO2 per kilo of avocados. Soy products, which are produced from soybeans, also use a significant amount of water; it takes 300 litres of water to produce 1 litre of soy milk. In recent decades, soy production has massively increased, so it is often said that consuming soy is almost as bad as consuming meat. However, 80-90% of soy is fed to animals due to it being a cheap and an easy crop to cultivate. Only 6% of soy actually goes to humans. When eating plant-based products it is useful to be mindful of where they have come from due to the CO2 that is emitted in transportation. If possible, it is best to buy locally and in season.

Vegan products will always have their environmental impacts, but compared to the animal alternative it is usually still a minimal amount. Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life. Veganism is a tricky choice to turn to, and for some it is not feasible, but if you can decrease your meat consumption this will make a huge difference to our planet.