Why We All Need to Eat a More Plant-Based Diet

Ellie is doing a Master’s in Climate Change: Environment, Science and Policy. She also did her undergraduate degree at King’s in History and International Relations. She has a keen interest in women’s participation in global politics, as well as environmental politics. 

[Featured Image: Photo of a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains on a table.  Source.]

Yes, yes, veganism is everywhere these days! Every supermarket and cafe seems to be doing vegan cookies, sandwiches and even vegan sausage rolls! You can rarely go anywhere without some kind of plant-based option!

Veganism has increased in leaps and bounds in recent years, with a 2018 survey finding that over 7% of the British population identified as vegan, which has likely increased since then.[1] But we all need to make changes to our diets in order to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to have a hope of limiting global warming below 2⁰ Celsius.

Meat and dairy have a large carbon footprint – they are responsible for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions alone.[2] In general, the footprint of animal products is much larger than plant-based products. A study found that on average, production of 1kg of beef produces 59.6 kgCO2equ (kilograms carbon dioxide equivalent), compared to tofu which produces just 3 kgCO2equ per kilogram.[3]

But why does meat and dairy produce so much more greenhouse gas than plant-based foods? There are three main reasons for this:

Firstly, animals produce methane directly. Cows and lambs are ‘ruminants’, meaning they have digestive systems that break down tough foods.[4] This process causes them to produce methane (yes, they fart) which has an even bigger impact on the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.[5] One cow farting isn’t going to do much, but the global demand for meat and dairy has caused livestock to increase on such a scale that this has a significant environmental impact. In other words, our increasing demand for meat and dairy is unsustainable.

Secondly, animals need land to live and graze on. This can mean fertilisers are used to maintain grass supply on fields, and nitrogen fertilisers can produce the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. But in a worst case scenario, forests and woodlands are cut down to make room for cattle. I’ll discuss how this increases greenhouse gas emissions later on.

Cattle at the cattle farm “Estancia Bahia”. [Source]

Thirdly, land is needed to grow animal feed. It requires a lot more crops to raise animals so that we can one day eat them, than if we just ate the crops ourselves. Every 100 calories given to animals in the form of crops, provides us with just 40 calories from milk, 12 from chicken and 3 from beef.[6] If humans ate crops like soya directly in plant-based alternatives, we could feed a lot more people and would require a lot less land to grow them. But, 90% of soya grown globally is fed to animals, not humans.[7]

The major problem with the land required to graze and feed animals is that it is causing deforestation. In South America, forests are consistently being chopped or burnt down in order to free up land for cattle and crops. What is more, the crops (like soya) that are produced in this way, are then sent to UK farms and fed to animals that end up on our supermarket shelves.[8] Thus, meat and dairy that we buy in UK supermarkets is directly linked to deforestation.

Deforestation contributes to global warming because not only do we lose a mechanism for taking carbon out of the atmosphere, but the trees release all the carbon that they have been storing when they are chopped down. Or worse, if they are burnt down the fire creates even more greenhouse gases. Furthermore, deforestation destroys habitats and threatens biodiversity, which is essential to our survival. In South America, deforestation also destroys the homes of indigenous communities, many of whom have suffered human rights abuses at the hands of those working in the meat and dairy industry.[9]


So, how can eating a more plant-based diet make a difference?

A report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) found that if everyone switched to a vegan/completely plant-based diet it could reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 7.9gt per year.[10] However, expecting everyone who currently eats meat with almost every meal to become religiously vegan overnight is undeniably unrealistic. But, if everyone in the world became a ‘flexitarian’ (i.e. ‘75% of meat and dairy is replaced with cereals and pulses…no more than one portion of red meat a week’) this could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5.13gt per year.[11] Hence, this one small change to our lifestyles could make a massive difference and bring us closer to net zero carbon emissions.

Of course, making this dietary change is only possible for those who can afford to do so. That’s why it’s essential that supermarkets stop selling meat with links to deforestation and replace it with affordable plant-based options. Greenpeace is currently campaigning for this to happen, starting with Tesco, which is the biggest seller in the UK of meat with links to deforestation. You can sign Greenpeace’s petition calling for this change here.

In the meantime, maybe next time you reach for a BLT try out one of the many, genuinely tasty, vegetarian or plant-based options instead. Or maybe start by going without meat one day a week and see if you can build it up. If everyone makes a small change, together we can have a massive impact.

[1]‘NUMBER OF VEGANS IN UK SOARS TO 3.5 MILLION, SURVEY FINDS’, The Independent, published 5th April 2018,  (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegans-uk-rise-popularity-plant-based-diets-veganism-figures-survey-compare-market-a8286471.html, accessed 12/02/2021).

[2] ‘Interactive: What is the climate impact of eating meat and dairy?’, The Carbon Brief, (https://interactive.carbonbrief.org/what-is-the-climate-impact-of-eating-meat-and-dairy/, accessed 12/02/2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ‘Meat and dairy’, Greenpeace UK, (https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/challenges/meat-and-dairy/, accessed 12/02/2021).

[7] ‘Are vegans and vegetarians destroying the planet?’, Greenpeace UK, (https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/soya-meat-vegetarian-vegan/, accessed 12/02/2021).

[8] ‘7 reasons why meat is bad for the environment’, Greenpeace UK, Published 30th August 2020, (https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/why-meat-is-bad-for-the-environment/, accessed 12/02/2021).

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Interactive…’, The Carbon Brief.

[11] Ibid.

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