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How eating a plant-based diet can save the world

Plant-based diet
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(NaturalNews) It seems that we are heading toward an environmental crisis. Global temperatures are rising; ice caps are melting, and much of our green land is turning to desert. Resources such as water and fossil fuels are becoming scarce, whilst the demand for them increases due to growing populations and widespread industrialization.

If humans are to continue living on this earth, it is evident that we need to start changing some of our habits. A good place to begin may be with the food that we eat.

The Plant-Based Diet
Our food choices are powerful. Not only can they affect the way we think, feel and perform, but they can also have an impact on the planet we live on.

Over the last 100 years, rises in affluence have led to a marked shift in our dietary patterns. As our economic power has increased, so too has our consumption of meat and dairy products, especially in the Western world. In 2012, the people of the USA consumed around 52 billion pounds of meat, compared to 9.8 billion in 1908 [1]. Similar patterns are also being observed in less developed regions, as industrialization spreads across the globe.

Just because we have the option to consume more and more animal products does not necessarily mean that it is a good idea. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlights that current practices of agriculture and livestock production contribute on a massive scale to climate change, air pollution, land degradation, energy use, deforestation and biodiversity decline [2].

For a variety of reasons, there is a quiet movement of people reducing their meat and dairy consumption and moving toward a plant-based diet (whether it is vegan, pescetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian or part-time vegetarian).

Not only has a plant-based way of eating been shown to reduce the risk of developing many diseases, but it could also significantly reduce the environmental impacts that we are having on the planet. So much so that a 2010 UN report urged people to make a shift toward a meat- and dairy-free diet to save the environment [3]. Let's take a look at a few reasons why.

Global temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate, and the consensus amongst the top environmental scientists is that the burning of fossil fuels and subsequent production of greenhouse gases is the main culprit [4]. Along with transportation, industry and domestic uses, agriculture and livestock production contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

In 2006, it was estimated that the livestock sector (including meat, dairy, eggs, draft animal power, leather, wool, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals) contributes approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions [2].

It seems that moving toward a plant-based diet on the other hand leads to significantly less of an impact. The typical carbon footprint of a meat lover is around 3.3 tons CO2 equivalent each year, and that of the average American is around 2.5. Switching to a vegetarian diet, however, can reduce your carbon footprint down to 1.7, and if you were to take it a step further, the vegan diet carries a carbon footprint of 1.5 tons CO2 equivalent. It seems that getting rid of meat and dairy could have more of an impact on the environment than swapping your conventional car for a hybrid [5].

Even if we were to just reduce our consumption of animal products rather than cut them out completely, the planet would experience benefits. If everyone in the U.S ate no meat or cheese for just one day a week, it would be equivalent to taking around 7.6 million cars off the road [6].

Land Degradation
As well as affecting the atmosphere above, our current eating habits are also placing a large strain on the surface of the planet. As populations rise and industrialization spreads, the demand for food increases. If we were to carry on at the current rate of growth with the same dietary preferences, it is estimated that, by 2050, the need for animal products will double.

Thirty percent of our land is however already dedicated to raising livestock for food, some 17 million square miles [7]. In many places, overgrazing has led to soil erosion and desertification, reducing the fertility and depth of the soil. These areas can take many years to recover, and an increased demand for meat and dairy will only place more strain on the land [8].

Half of the plant foods that we produce are used to feed the animals that we then eat [9]. This is a very inefficient means of transferring energy, and if we are to continue to feed our growing populations, we clearly need to think about using our space in a more sustainable way.

Water security is becoming an increasingly urgent issue and is exacerbated by the changing climate. Only a small percentage of the world's freshwater is currently available for human use, as the majority of it is locked in ice caps and underground aquifers. The small amount that is available is not being used sustainably.

Agriculture, particularly for meat and dairy products, currently accounts for 70 percent of the world's freshwater usage [10]. Not only does agriculture place a strain on the quantity of freshwater, but it also affects the quality. Runoff from the heavy uses of pesticides and fertilizers can often leave the surrounding groundwater polluted, affecting drinking water supplies and harming fragile ecosystems.

Moving toward a plant-based diet however, may help mitigate some of the problems. The average diet containing animal products requires around 4,000 gallons of water a day, whereas a vegan diet uses approximately 300 gallons of water a day [11]. To produce 1 kilogram of rice requires about 3,500 liters of water, whereas 1 kilogram of beef requires a staggering 15,000 liters [10].

It is quite clear that our current eating habits in the West are not sustainable, and something needs to change. We cannot carry on doing the same things and expect the environment to accommodate us.

Some believe that the plant-based movement is unrealistic, and that the majority of people will not be willing to alter their ingrained habits, but I do believe that progress is slowly being made. Meatless Monday's campaign is now running in 36 countries across the world, and a number of athletes and celebrities have recently turned toward a vegan diet.

The more people who are educated about the impact of their food choices, the larger chance we stand for a sustainable future. The question still remains, however, whether the change in eating habits can happen before it is too late. I suppose time will tell.


1. http://www.npr.org

2. http://www.fao.org

3. http://www.theguardian.com

4. http://www.climatechange2013.org [PDF]

5. http://shrinkthatfootprint.com

6. http://www.timigustafson.com

7. http://www.kkl.org.il

8. http://www.wvu.edu

9. http://www.upworthy.com

10. http://www.un.org

11. www.vrg.org


About the author:
Luke Jones is the creator of Health Room, the blog dedicated to investigating and sharing ideas in plant based nutrition, moving freely, living mindfully and existing sustainably.

Luke is a graduate of Imperial College London, a martial artist, and plant based nutritionist.

He enjoys exploring natural movement and eating a whole-food, plant based diet. He also loves seeing other people chase their dreams, and realise their health potential.

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