What Is the Environmental Impact of Going Vegan?

Is this lifestyle the best way to protect the planet?

Tea garden
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Veganism is a lifestyle in which people abstain from buying, eating, and using animal products and items that require animal exploitation to produce. Most easily identified by their plant-based diet that excludes all animal foods, vegans also avoid animal-based materials, products tested on animals, and entertainment featuring animals. 

Most people become vegan out of concern for animal welfare. But as the ranks of Gen Z join their elders in plant-based living, many younger people report adopting veganism mainly because of environmental concerns. And rightly so: Research shows that more than half of greenhouse gas emissions from food come from animal products.

So is veganism the most environmentally friendly lifestyle? Here, we discuss animal versus plant agriculture, the impacts of veganism, and how you can incorporate vegan and environmental principles into your life.

Animal Agriculture

Piglets (Sus sp.) feeding at trough
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Animal agriculture plays an enormous role in climate change. Livestock-based food production alone is responsible for about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and animal-based food emissions are double that of plant-based foods.

Livestock uses as much as 70% of all agricultural land. Much of that land is dedicated to growing corn, wheat, and soy that feed livestock. As the global meat market grows, so does livestock farming. This expansion threatens biodiversity and promotes wildlife habitat destruction. 

Look no further than the Great Plains of the United States, where native habitats are being cleared out to harvest soybeans to feed livestock. Add in a million pounds of pesticides and a billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, and you’ve got about half of the picture of the emission footprint of animal agriculture.

The other half is manure. From cows to chickens, the waste produced by the animals we eat also emits methane and nitrous oxide, two potent greenhouse gases. Manure can affect the air quality on and near farms and can cause degradation to groundwater supplies when storage facilities leak or when field fertilization overflows into local water supplies.

Beef, Mutton, and Lamb

Beef has the most significant environmental impact of any single food. Although estimates vary based on farming techniques, it roughly takes 20 pounds of grain and 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of edible meat. Along with other ruminant meats, beef requires around 20 times the amount of land and generates more than 20 times the number of greenhouse gas emissions per gram of edible protein than plant proteins like beans and lentils.

Beyond land and water used for feed production and pasture, most of the emissions associated with polygastric animals happen during production. That’s because cows, sheep, and goats digest food in a process called enteric fermentation, a by-product of which is methane.

Did You Know?

Not all greenhouse gases are created equal. Human-generated carbon dioxide remains the largest contributor to global warming, but methane and nitrous oxide create even greater environmental tolls. Although short-lived, methane’s impact on global warming is around 30 times greater than carbon dioxide. Conversely, nitrous oxide can accumulate in the atmosphere for decades. Its contributions to global warming are over 300 times greater than carbon dioxide.

Poultry and Pork

Relative to other meats, monogastric animals like chickens and pigs produce no methane and use less land per unit of protein. But that doesn’t make them sustainable alternatives to ruminant meat.

The poultry industry is the largest user of feed crop in the world. Per gram of protein, the water footprint for chicken is 1.5 times greater than peas, lentils, or beans. In general, poultry has a lower water footprint than pork, which is lower than beef, although the average total water footprint is similar for all three products. Chicken also requires more energy and water to process than other meats. 

More concerning, chicken manure—flushed with ​​salmonella, antibiotics, ammonia, and heavy metals—often ends up polluting nearby rivers and streams, causing harm to both humans and other animals. The pork industry likewise struggles with manure management. Pork waste emits both methane and nitrous oxide. If leaked into a nearby water system, the high nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in pork manure can be hazardous to aquatic animals and humans who drink contaminated water.

Dairy

Dairy cows ready for milking
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The dairy industry represents two percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In 2017, thirteen of the world’s largest dairy corporations combined emitted more greenhouse gases than the American fossil fuel company ConocoPhillips, making dairy one of the top 20 fossil-fuel emitters. Per unit of protein, dairy’s land use and emissions are significantly higher than poultry’s because cows are methane-making machines. 

The bulk of dairy emissions occurs during feed production, enteric fermentation, and manure management. As with all livestock, feed production can contribute to deforestation and the release of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, not to mention the destruction of topsoil. In the U.S., it takes around 144 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of milk, and almost all of that water goes to growing crops for dairy cows. 

Eggs

Alongside chicken, eggs have some of the lowest emissions compared to other livestock products. Feed production, again, accounts for most of the footprint of eggs and compared to chicken, eggs require more manure management. 

As with other parts of animal agriculture, sometimes the solutions to emissions problems often result in worse outcomes in terms of animal welfare. Researchers from the Sustainable Egg Coalition found that one hen housing system did not emerge as the most sustainable. The tradeoffs involved keeping the chickens in more confined spaces, a lose-lose from an environmental vegan perspective.

Fish and Seafood

Wild fisheries have some of the lowest environmental impacts of all animal products because fish and other seafood do not create methane. Additionally, unfed aquaculture requires low levels of freshwater and land because most resource usage in seafood is associated with feed production. However, not all blue foods are captured; farmed fish and crustaceans have greenhouse gas emissions roughly equivalent to sheep production, around .5%. 

Environmental vegans may also skip seafood out of concern for overfishing. The collapse of these marine food systems can cause cascading effects to both the environment and the local economies involved.

Plant Agriculture

Almond Orchard With Ripening Fruit on Trees
Almond orchard. GomezDavid / Getty Images

From all angles, grains, fruits, and vegetables boast the lowest environmental impact of all foods. Meat emissions mainly occur during production, but most of the emissions associated with plant proteins happen after leaving the farm. And because these plant-based foods require much less processing, they also use less energy finding their way into an edible form.

Overall, plant-based proteins produce fewer greenhouse gasses than even the lowest emitting animal-based proteins.

Resource-Intensive

Still, some plant-based foods demand more significant resources than others from a strictly environmental impact viewpoint. Nuts, for example, use relatively large amounts of water, fertilizer, and pesticides compared to other crops. Growing just one almond in California requires over three gallons of water.

However, nuts have higher nutritional value than, for example, onions or honeydew. For this reason, some studies regard the environmental impact of almonds to be on par with other crops. Other research indicates that, because of its low protein content, almond milk has a higher environmental impact than either soy milk or dairy milk.

Other troublesome vegetables include avocados and asparagus, which have relatively high water footprints and high transportation emissions. And let's not forget coffee and chocolate, which, respectively, release four and eight times more greenhouse gas than the next highest emitting crop (palm oil).

Rice, too, has a hefty water footprint, and microbes living in flooded rice fields emit high levels of methane and nitrous oxide. Because it feeds so many people worldwide, greenhouse gas emissions from rice cultivation account for between 6%-30% of all emissions worldwide.

Remarkably, some vegetables can reduce the overall environmental impact of agriculture. Legumes do require more land and water use than other crops, but they can also convert nitrogen in the air into nutrients, reducing the need for fertilizer

The Environmental Vegan Lifestyle

The environmental vegan takes into account not only animal welfare concerns but also ecological considerations. This additional or alternative code of ethics can influence their choices in many different aspects of life.

Food

Many environmental vegans consider a food’s origin and packaging in addition to its vegan status. For example, fresh blueberries are 100% animal-free. Still, if those berries were flown into the U.S. in the middle of January, those berries may have a bigger carbon footprint than locally sourced animal-based food.

Environmental vegans may also refrain from plastic packaging (as much as possible) or aim to buy local produce to further reduce transportation emissions. People who identify as locavores or sustainavores share such considerations.

Clothing

Woman Looking At Blouse While Out Shopping
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On principle, vegans don’t wear animal products like leather, wool, silk, or fur. Leather also happens to be one of the most environmentally damaging materials. The most common tanning process that turns animal hides into leather generates a great deal of wastewater contaminated with chromium.

Unfortunately, alternatives to animal materials have traditionally come from fossil fuel-derived synthetic fabrics like polyester and acrylic, which have their own set of environmental burdens. New, plant-based leathers made from pineapple, cactus, apple, and even mushrooms have entered the market, providing a conscious option for fashion-savvy environmental vegans.

Wool, like leather, is a co-product of the meat industry, and it too has contamination concerns resulting from the cleaning and dyeing processes. But wool can also be effectively recycled, reducing the impact of the environmental demands for wool production. Generally speaking, used textiles have lower carbon footprints than new ones, which may also influence environmental vegans’ clothing choices.

Personal Care

Vegans object to animal testing, especially for cosmetics or other personal care products. Environmental vegans have even more reason to reach for cruelty-free options

A study from 2014 found that the approximately 100 million animals used in research every year contribute to pollution (air, water, and soil) and create additional public health and biodiversity concerns. Unfortunately, the reporting data for animals used in laboratories is scant, and further investigations into the environmental impacts of animal testing will need to be conducted.

Should We All Go Vegan for the Environment? 

In a perfect world, we would all go vegan, overhauling animal agriculture’s contributions to climate change. But with only 5% of Americans identifying as vegetarian and even fewer as vegan, such a world will never likely exist.

Personal, cultural, and economic factors shape our eating habits and philosophies. A vegan lifestyle may not be a viable choice—let alone healthy or affordable—for anyone, especially from a global perspective.

Instead of striving for perfection, environmental vegans work toward the practical and possible: encouraging everyone to reduce their beef consumption. Flexitarians—people who primarily eat plant-based but sometimes eat meat or fish—have nearly as much to offer as someone who rigidly follows a vegan lifestyle. 

Research indicates that swapping half of all animal-based foods for plant-based alternatives by 2030 could reduce emissions equivalent to removing 47.5 million cars from the road. According to the World Resources Institute, if Americans ate half as much beef as they currently do, agricultural expansion could be halted and still support a global population of 10 billion. Those numbers are far from a vegan utopia, but they do represent a world in which more of us may co-exist.

Making Veganism Work For You

Eating vegan bowl with edamame beans, broccoli, avocado, beetroot, hummus and nuts
Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

If you’d like to incorporate veganism into your life, you don’t have to go whole hog (pun intended) in order to make a difference. Instead of relying on binary distinctions that create an us vs. them mentality, modern sensibilities around environmental veganism keep a more holistic view in mind. Here are easy ways to go vegan and do your part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Meatless Mondays - This popular hashtag could be your first vegan habit. Meatless Mondays work well for those who are experimenting with plant-based cooking but feel daunted by overhauling every meal.
  • Daytime/Nighttime Vegan - Some people find success by containing their animal product consumption to certain times or meals of the day. Variations of this include Work Vegan or Dining Out Vegan. 
  • Eat Local - Seek out your closest farmers market or search for a CSA or food co-op in your area. Your purchases not only support your new lifestyle but also your local farmers and small business owners. Plus, you might meet other like-minded eaters with whom you can socialize and swap recipes.
  • Shop Local - In addition to checking clothing labels for non-vegan materials before making a purchase, think about where you are shopping. Does your favorite clothing company practice ethical production? You might also consider shopping secondhand at a thrift or consignment store.
  • Clean Beauty - Not all beauty brands adhere to the same standards. Look for cosmetic products that are both cruelty-free and vegan.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • Are there negative effects of veganism on the environment?

    In certain situations—like when fresh produce is air-lifted in out of season—some vegan foods could have higher greenhouse gas emissions than some animal-based products. But when compared to the overall emissions of animal products, even higher emitting plant-based foods still release lower emissions than animal products.

  • How does veganism help climate change?

    The main culprits behind climate change are greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. Vegans produce fewer of these emissions because their plant-based diet more efficiently converts plant protein into calories consumed by people.

  • How does veganism reduce my carbon footprint?

    On the whole, animal-based foods have bigger carbon footprints than plant-based foods. A vegan lifestyle produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions, uses less water, and helps decrease fertilizer usage by using crop production to feed humans instead of livestock.

View Article Sources
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