Vegans pride themselves on their healthy diet and contribution to the planet’s health. However, despite their benefits, not all plant-based foods have a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions.
One professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia, Mike Archer, argues that producing wheat and grains in Australia results in significant environmental damage and animal cruelty than the farming of red meat. There is also the argument that veganism carries many risks for people’s health, making them susceptible to strokes, depression, and reduced brain health because of their lack of proteins, vitamin B, and iron.
Professor Archer argues that the livestock sector uses land unsuitable for growing crops. In addition, the increased grain production to meet the needs of the vegan diet also degrades the environment. He also claims that vegetable growing consumes tons of water, a problem for counties with water shortages.
What is accurate, and what is the actual impact of plant-based eating on the environment?
Environmental Impacts of Diets
Studies show that our eating requirements contribute to 34% of greenhouse emissions. Beef production remains the largest culprit since it contributes up to ten times more than chicken production, producing 20 times more than nuts and legumes.
However, a team of researchers at Tulane University considered the nutritional quality and environmental impact of four popular diets – keto, paleo, vegan and omnivorous. Their results were interesting.
They found that the keto diet, prioritizing fats and avoiding carbs, and the paleo diet, avoiding beans and grains while favoring meats, nuts, and vegetables, had the lowest score on overall nutrition quality and were very high on carbon emissions.
The most negligible environmental impact was from vegan, vegetarian, and pescetarian diets. However, pescatarians enjoyed the highest nutritional quality of the three, closely followed by vegetarians and vegans.
The study showed that 86% of the people on the omnivore diet came in the middle because their diet provided reasonable environmental sustainability and nutritional quality. Experts say that if this group ate a vegetarian diet at least one day a week, they would help eliminate the equivalent of 340 million passenger vehicle miles per day, making a case for meatless Monday and other similar efforts.
Diego Rose, professor of Nutritional Sciences at Tulane and the study’s senior author, told earth.com, “Climate change is arguably a pressing problem. As a result, many people are opting to embrace a plant-based diet. Based on our results, this can reduce your footprint and be generally healthy. However, our research also shows we can improve our health and footprint without giving up meat entirely.”
Is Veganism More Eco-Friendly?
Without a doubt, eating vegetarian foods reduces carbon emissions 2.5 times more and requires 2.5 times less land than a meat-based diet. However, despite their environmental benefits, not all fruits and vegetables reduce carbon emissions or receive a green stamp of approval.
The reason is that some use many natural resources or have a high carbon footprint because of air transportation. Therefore, fruits and veg can generate more emissions when not grown locally or imported out of season than locally grown poultry.
When consumers expect strawberries or asparagus out of season, they will have an enormous environmental impact because of the carbon dioxide used for flying them in. For example, a recent study found that asparagus flown into the UK from Peru had the largest carbon dioxide production of any other vegetable imported, with 5.3 kgs for every kilogram.
Avocados are another fruit that has come under the spotlight because of their devastating impact on water resources. These fruits are grown in water-stressed areas like California, Mexico, Chile, etc., but one mature avocado tree requires 46 gallons (209 liters) of water in the summer. As a result, each kilo of avocados imported to the UK leaves a carbon footprint of 0.55 kg of CO2 per kilo.
Mushrooms are a good source of nutrients, making them the ideal meat replacement. However, although they grow in a dark room on organic compost, they release CO2 concentrations as they respire to grow. Therefore, different mushrooms need carefully controlled levels according to their shapes and sizes. Some varieties need concentrations 48 times higher than outside air for their production. Growers exchange CO2 with fresh air when the levels get too high.
One study shows emissions from bought chestnut and portobello mushrooms are between 2.13 and 2.95kg of CO2. The US Mushroom Council maintains that its 0.7 kilograms for every kilo. The primary energy consumption for mushrooms comes from the heating requirements for their growth of 62 degrees Celsius.
Cocoa has become a popular health food, but it has resulted in the loss of vast tracts of forests as demand increases. In West Africa alone, 2.1 million hectares were cleared between 1988 and 2008 for cocoa plantations. Land clearing in West Africa, the Amazon, and South East Asia for crops like palm oil and soy remains another huge problem. The carbon footprint for cocoa varies, but the average is 11.2 kg of CO2/kilo for producing chocolate and 33.6kg /kilo for cocoa powder.
Tree nuts are critical to the vegan diet thanks to their proteins and nutrients. However, some, like cashews, walnuts, and almonds, are extremely water intensive, needing 909 gallons or (4,134 L) of fresh water per kg of shelled product.
Almonds also require the substantial use of pesticides and fertilizers, adding to their environmental impact. Estimates from the University of Michigan show that cashew nuts release the most carbon dioxide of all nuts. They reach almost 5kg/kilo because it’s a low-yield crop, and the hard shell of each nut contains a caustic oil that is detrimental if it escapes into the environment.
Sustainability of Veganism and Fake Meats
Agricultural practices required to grow fruits and vegetables require tilling, which releases greenhouse gases into the environment and results in erosion.
Meanwhile, food crops also need fertilizers, increasing their environmental impact. The production of synthetic fertilizers accounts for 3% of the greenhouse gas emissions globally, emitting CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. In addition, when used to enhance plant growth, fertilizers emit another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
The increased production of faux meat substitutes required by the growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans also comes with its problems. These products use Mycoprotein and mushrooms as meat substitutes, but these and other components like peas, soy, potato, oats, etc., require significant energy processing.
They use a fraction of the land required for rearing cattle but can still contribute as much as 6.15kg of CO2/kg. Of course, different farming practices in plant-based meats can affect their greenhouse gas emissions, but the same applies to beef farming, where it can increase tenfold from an efficient producer to one that takes no measure.
A plant-based diet has several environmental benefits, such as reducing the land needed for feed and raising animals. But it also has its negative impacts that need to be addressed. Eating foods like avocados, mushrooms, cocoa, and nuts can result in CO2 emissions from transport, energy consumption, and agricultural practices. To reduce their overall environmental impact, people should choose organic produce when possible and buy locally where possible. Eating sustainably produced fake meats is also an option but must be done cautiously to avoid excessive emissions. Ultimately, being mindful of what we eat and how it’s produced can help reduce the environmental impact of a plant-based diet..
Plant-based diets have a lower overall environmental impact than other diets, as they require fewer resources to produce. However, they are not entirely free from environmental impacts, as crops may require fertilizers, pesticides, and energy for processing. In addition, some plant-based foods, such as nuts and faux meats, can be more resource intensive to produce than others. It is best to consider local and in-season options when choosing food to help reduce their carbon footprint.
Eating locally and in season is one of the best ways to reduce your environmental impact. Other eco-friendly options include fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and nuts that require fewer resources to produce. It is also helpful to choose organically grown produce, as this reduces the reliance on synthetic fertilizers.
Faux meats can be more resource intensive to produce than other plant-based foods due to their high energy needs for processing. However, they do not require as much land or water for production as animal products do. To reduce their environmental impact further, choose sustainably produced faux meats made from organic ingredients.