The shift to veganism is becoming a global phenomenon.
Last year, Google reported a 90 per cent increase in ‘vegan’ searches, in the UK there are 350 per cent more vegans than 10 years ago, and the change is being driven by young people, setting a course for the future.
Films like Cowspiracy and Earthlings have had a massive impact on the general public, and people are now changing their diets for three main reasons: animal rights and welfare, health and wellbeing, and the environment (meat production 'is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole').
Out of these main reasons, we want to take a closer look at number three. How does shifting to a plant-based diet benefit the environment?
If we cut all the trees down… will we still be able to breathe?
This doesn’t sound like a sensible experiment to try, but humans are giving it a shot! Sustaining people with animal products requires more farmland than if we eat plants.
As the human population increases, and the global average amount of meat eaten per person increases, the total area of agricultural land has to increase proportionally to meet demand.
Ultimately, the only place to go is into wild habitats. This is why the Amazon rainforest is being cut down and replaced with soya plantations to feed cattle to create beef products for global consumption.
Healthy forests sustain life on our planet. In contrast, a monoculture plantation of soya, grown to feed cattle, is actually a net drain on the planet requiring high levels of chemical and energetic inputs to sustain it.
If everybody on Earth switched to a vegan diet, much less land would be required to produce the food needed to sustain humanity, and large areas of land could return to its natural state. This would reduce extinction rates of other species and help stabilize planetary conditions.
What should we do with fresh water? Let it flow freely across land in life-supporting rivers or divert it into factories for industrial processes?
We think of Planet Earth as a blue, aqueous planet.
Whilst it is true that water makes up about 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface, 96.5 per cent of all the Earth’s water is contained within the oceans as salt water, while the remaining 3.5 per cent is freshwater - lakes and rivers and also frozen water locked up in glaciers and the polar ice caps.
Just one per cent of our planet’s freshwater is easily accessible.
The total amount of freshwater on Earth has remained the same since before the time of the dinosaurs. However, human activity is reducing the quality of the finite quantity that we have.
Across the world, reports reveal a growing and extensive crisis as reservoirs and aquifers dry up. According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.
By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity.
With this parched background, the meat industry's gross inefficiencies are hard to stomach. The average hamburger takes 2,400 liters (630 gallons) of water to produce.
Up to 90 per cent of all managed water is used to grow food, so what we eat has massive global significance. A vegan diet uses at least three times less water, and if the plants are grown organically, creates little to no pollution.
When we emit pollution or throw rubbish away… where is away?
Meat production creates waste in many different ways. The most acute problems arise downstream from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Antibiotics, slurry, excess fertilizers, and transmittable diseases can wreak havoc on surrounding ecological systems.
In the USA, there are 19,496 CAFOs pumping vast quantities of toxic waste into nature. Rain washes the pollution into rivers which carry it out to sea.
The Mississippi and Missouri rivers drop their deadly cargo into the Gulf of Mexico where it creates 'dead zones': areas totally devoid of life. 2017 saw the discovery of the biggest ever recorded engulfing 8,700 square miles.
There are now 405 identified dead zones worldwide, and the number is increasing. More than half of America's rivers and streams are now unable to support life after decades of pollution, most of which comes from animal agriculture.
Many countries around the world are adopting the US’s model of intensively raising animals. In the UK, there has been a 26 per cent rise in intensive factory farming in six years, transforming the countryside.
Much more significantly, meat consumption in China (where over half the world’s pigs are slaughtered) continues to rise. Chinese livestock produces 5 billion tonnes of waste - the biggest source of water pollution in the country.
In China, 16 per cent of soil is said to be polluted, 20 per cent of farmland unusable and 60 per cent of groundwater not suitable for consumption.
If it is grown sustainably, there is no 'waste' from growing plants for food - any excess organic matter can be turned into compost or biofuel.
4. Climate change
How much pollution can our atmosphere hold before our planet changes forever?
Animal waste releases methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases that are 25 and 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, respectively.
Globally, meat production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases accounting for an estimated 18 per cent of human-caused emissions, producing 40 per cent of the world’s methane, and 65 per cent of the world’s nitrous oxide.
Climate scientists warn us that we are pushing up against irreversible tipping points. As the world warms, frozen tundra (icy soils) release methane. This drives further climate change - a 'positive feedback loop'.
Another example of positive feedback is wildfires. Hotter conditions lead to more fires, which releases greenhouse gasses further increasing planetary warming, driving more fires.
Civilization’s hope lies in returning atmospheric carbon to a safe level to avoid these catastrophic 'runaway' scenarios. Scientists tell us that 2°C of global warming may be safe. This requires limiting the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm).
We are now at well over 400 ppm.
Currently, governments subsidize fossil fuels with over $5.3 trillion per year (6.5 per cent of global GDP). It is crucial that we organize to tackle this massive distortion to the economy that continues to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of individuals and companies that demonstrate no concern for the global commons or the lives of future humans.
As we do this, reducing meat consumption is one of the most impactful lifestyle changes we can make to respond to climate change.