The moral argument about going vegan was, for decades, centred on the idea that we should not be killing sentient animals to eat. And it's something we do on a staggeringly high industrial scale, with about 200 million animals killed for consumption every day, according to the Compassion in World Farming group. But now the argument is more urgently focused on the effect meat-eating has on the environment.
Meat and dairy account for 73 per cent of our carbon footprint from food
In fact, numerous reports show that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way a person can reduce their negative effect on the planet. An extensive 2018 study at the University of Oxford, titled Reducing Food's Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers, concluded that by cutting meat and dairy from your diet, you can reduce your carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.
Food has always been at the centre of global issues, but now we better understand how the industry is having an effect on climate change, and it comes at a time when the environmental crisis has reached a critical point.
Despite hunger still being an issue in some places, globally we are not short of food. Tristram Stuart, in his book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, points out the startling fact that farmers, manufacturers, supermarkets and consumers discard up to half of their food – enough to feed all the world's hungry at least three times over.
In the Middle East, a report by Dubai Industrial City and The Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that in the UAE, on average, each person wastes 197 kilograms of food every year – double that of the average European – although the hospitality industry accounts for the largest proportion. While the overproduction of food is an issue, it's the increased meat and dairy part of that production that is doing the most damage to the environment.
The livestock industry generates more greenhouse gases than air travel
The world’s population has roughly doubled since the 1960s, while global meat production has quadrupled, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. For some livestock it’s even worse; chicken production, for example, has increased to thirteen-fold in that time.
Meat and dairy production is also responsible for 60 per cent of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions, yet it only provides about 18 per cent of calories and a little more than a third of worldwide protein levels, as revealed by the Oxford University report. Half of all animal emissions come from lamb and beef alone. It's far from an efficient model and it comes at a huge cost; as a 2006 UN report, titled Livestock's Long Shadow-Environmental Issues and Options, concluded: the global livestock industry generates the same quantity of greenhouse gases as all transport combined.
It states that while we are being asked to consider electric cars or take fewer flights, it is our diet that could have the bigger impact. It's laudable that we look to measures such as reducing air and water pollution as a means to become more energy-efficient and lessen our environmental impact, but we also need to seriously reconsider what it is we are eating, it would appear.
Animal farming takes up more (deforested) land than any other
An interest in veganism may have increased seven-fold in the years between 2014 and 2019, according to Google Trends, but equally, we are eating more meat than ever. About 70 billion farm animals are reared for food in the world each year, says Compassion in World Farming.
Animal farming takes up a vast amount of land around the world, but as per the findings by Oxford University, if we all adopted a vegan diet, global farmland use for livestock could be reduced by 76 per cent (or 3.1 billion hectares), which is an area the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined. Not only would this result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, it would have a significant knock-on effect in other areas of the environment.
According to the World Resources Institute, 39 million acres of tree cover was lost in the tropics in 2017 alone, which is the equivalent of losing 40 football fields worth of trees every minute for an entire year. Agriculture and forestry accounts for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, so what we do with these industries matters.
Livestock rearing also contributes to global warming through methane – animal agriculture is the world's biggest producer of the greenhouse gas – but also via the massive deforestation required to expand pastures.
The livestock industry also consumes a huge proportion of fresh water resources, according to the UN report. As result, animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91 per cent of destruction to the Amazon.
The problem is getting worse as more people around the world move out of extreme poverty and add meat, eggs and dairy to their diet. The UN’s FAO predicts that by 2050, world meat production will have nearly doubled as the taste for these three food groups continues to grow.
More vegan options than ever for those willing to make the switch
There are now more vegan options than ever for those willing to make the switch, however, as corporations begin to see the financial potential of offering such products. From vegan ice creams and dairy-free cheeses to tastier meat-less meats, even those who don't fully change to a non-meat and dairy diet have options to switch out regular items for vegan ones.
However, it is worth noting that going purely plant-based is not always for everyone, despite the environmental benefits, and you should consider consulting your doctor before drastically changing your diet.
Vegans also do need to take a B12 supplement or eat foods that have been fortified with the vitamin (plant milks or cereals, for example), and it is not a cure-all diet for ailments.
A study by the Oxford Martin School on the future of food concluded that if the world went vegan, it could save eight million human lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages to the tune of $1.5 trillion.
Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec once said: "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible", and the same happens with every global crisis. In the face of such data, it's easy to shrug and see the problem as too overwhelming and believe that individual actions can have little impact, but any changes we make collectively can have a huge impact on the future of the planet.