Cutting Out Meat and Dairy Is the Best Thing You Can Do for the Planet

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CC BY 2.0. K-State Research & Extension -- Beef cattle at Kansas State University

Huge new study reveals that going vegan offers far greater benefits than quitting flying or driving an electric car.

Meat and dairy, delicious though they may be, are terrible for the planet. We've known about this for a while, but now a new study has completed an even more in-depth analysis of their environmental impact. Conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford and published in the latest issue of Science, the study concludes that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single most effective way to minimize one's footprint on the world.

What makes this study different is its approach. The researchers worked from the ground up, assessing individual data from over 38,000 farms in 119 countries and analyzing 40 food products that represent 90 percent of what people eat worldwide. They "assessed the full impact of these foods, from farm to fork, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification)."

What they found is that even the most sustainable form of meat and dairy production is considerably more damaging to the planet than the least sustainable form of vegetable and grain production. From the Guardian's report:

"The analysis also revealed a huge variability between different ways of producing the same food. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and use 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land."

The study revealed that meat and dairy provide only 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of the protein that humans consume; and yet, they occupy 83 percent of agricultural farmland while generating 60 percent of the industry's greenhouse gas emissions. Within this context, it's clear that switching to a vegan diet (or, at the very least, drastically reducing one's consumption of animal products) is far more effective at helping the planet than any other green lifestyle decisions. Study author Joseph Poore told the Guardian:

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems. Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy."

It is, however, a tough switch for many people to grasp, who may not know how to prepare meatless food, worry about potential dietary complications, or are attached to the deep cultural associations that go along with many meat-based dishes.

Certain measures could incentivize meat reduction or avoidance, such as labels revealing the environmental impact of individual foods; think of it as a nutritional label for the Earth. We could also pull a portion of the subsidies paid out to the U.S. livestock industry ($10.3 billion between 1995-2016) and reassign it to vegetable growers to make produce more affordable. Environmentally-damaging foods should be taxed according to their impact. Indeed, investors in the meat industry have already been warned of this likely change in the near future:

"If policymakers are to cover the true cost of livestock epidemics like avian flu and human epidemics like obesity, diabetes and cancer, while also tackling the twin challenges of climate change and antibiotic resistance, then a shift from subsidisation to taxation of the meat industry looks inevitable. Far-sighted investors should plan ahead for this day."

Over the past four years of his research, Poore has cut animal products out of his own diet, affected by what he sees as a completely unsustainable way of eating. The question now is, how many of us can do that, too?