You may be an ardent recycler who tries not to fly when you go on holiday, but if you still don’t feel you’re doing all you can for the planet, there’s a reason for that. New research has established the single most effective way to curb your environmental impact: give up meat and dairy.
If the world went vegan, according to a study by Oxford University, then not only would the global population – all 7.6 billion of us – still be fed, but the amount of land we use to keep and grow food crops for livestock would shrink by three-quarters. That’s a portion of land the same size as Europe, Australia, China and the US combined. Such a move would be fantastic in light of last month’s news that humanity’s encroachment on wild space has led to the loss of half of all plants and 83 per cent of wild mammals.
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication [when bodies of water become overly enriched by nutrients from the land, typically as a result of farming practices], land use and water use,” said Oxford’s Joseph Poore, who led the research. He added that because steps such as taking fewer flights and investing in an electric car cut emissions only of harmful greenhouses gases, becoming vegan is a much more significant step environmentally.
Published in the journal Science – and described by one academic as “really important, sound, ambitious, revealing and beautifully done” – the study assessed the farm-to-fork impact of 40 food products, using data from 40,000 farms across 119 countries on 40 food products. It found that meat and dairy farming uses 83 per cent of farmland and produces 60 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture. For all that, meat and dairy provides only a mere 18 per cent of calories and 37 per cent of protein. And the worst veg beats the best meat, so to speak: even the most unsustainable vegetable farming puts the most sustainable meat and dairy in the shade. A report last year revealed that even beef claimed to be “green”, from grass-fed cattle, is just as environmentally damaging as any other kind.
“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” added Poore. “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.”
If an entirely vegan world is too much of a stretch for consumers and policymakers – a report earlier this year highlighted the benefit of America going vegan – then ditching the most egregious environmental offenders would still deliver dividends. For example, turning our backs on producing the most damaging 50 per cent of meat and dairy products – such as red meat – and growing plant-based alternatives instead would still deliver two-thirds of the benefits of an entirely vegan world, the study suggests.
Testimony to the power of the research is that, over the course of conducting it, Poore has himself turned vegan. “The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there,” he said. “But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is a lot.”