- Introduction: Plant-based and Sustainable Diets
- Challenges and Approaches to Adopting Plant-based Diets
- Reducing Meat Consumption: Why Plant-based Provides Balance
- What Makes Plant-based Diets Sustainable?
- The Long-term Effects of Plant-based Diets on the Environment
- The Bottom Line
Introduction: Plant-based and Sustainable Diets
Definitions of sustainability generally address aspects of ecology, economy, and society and have different meanings depending on the context.
In 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defined sustainable diets as “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.
Sustainable diets are intended to be protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.
The determinants of a sustainable diet are as follows:
- nutritional adequacy
- environmental sustainability
- cultural acceptability
- low-cost accessibility
Compared with plant foods, meat and dairy products are clearly responsible for a hefty share of the natural resource utilization and environmental burden of food production. However, looking at dietary patterns, instead of single foods, is a more integrated and realistic approach in the assessment of the environmental impacts of producing foods for human consumption.
Challenges and Approaches to Adopting Plant-based Diets
Challenges of adopting plant-based diets exist at many levels. Are meatless diets adequate in terms of nutritional value? Many people wonder this when deciding whether to try plant-based alternatives.
For thousands of years, the majority of the world’s population thrived on diets that contained little or no meat. Over the past century, however, the concept of eating meat has been popularized and has become deeply ingrained in the psyche and culture of Western countries. As the popularity of eating meat has spread, it has pervaded many other cultures and nations.
There are serious obstacles and opposition that stand in the way of reducing meat consumption and a transition towards plant-based diets:
- the consumer’s taste preferences
- culinary traditions
- established social norms
- economic forces, such as the livestock industry
- current national and international food policies
Put simply, the world’s demographic explosion and the increase in the demand for animal foods have rendered the entire food system functionally unsustainable. While the truth is not comfortable, food security and food sustainability have been on a collision course. In order to change course and avoid collision, research shows that we must reduce meat and dairy consumption significantly across large segments of the world population.
In order to do this, several proposals for sustainable solutions have been arranged and proposed to promote a successful evolution from animal protein to plant-based protein consumption. Some of these proposals integrate consumer education that highlight the environmental and health merits of plant-based diets, the restructuring of food guidelines based on health and sustainability criteria. In terms of appealing to consumers’ taste preferences, many organizations, such as Beyond Meat, are developing attractive and socially acceptable plant-based meat-alternative foods.
These trends have made the re-aligning current fiscal policy (e.g. taxation and food policies) easier and more efficient, helping to drive more positive environmental outcomes.
Reducing Meat Consumption: Why Plant-based Provides Balance
From a health perspective, there is no essential need to consume meat. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that links meat consumption, specifically red meat and processed meat, to detrimental long-term health outcomes.
For decades, meat and dairy have been considered essential for proper nutrition in a balanced daily diet, and the consumption of plant-based diets was considered inadequate. Fortunately, this nutritional paradigm has changed in the past few decades, as data now supports that most plant-based diets are healthier than meat-based diets.
What are the benefits to going plant-based? Research shows plant-based diets yield greater longevity and lower chronic diseases for those who adopt them.
We need to find a balance, and transitioning to a plant-based diet is one way to live a more sustainable lifestyle and ensure long-term success, in terms of individual health and macro-level environmental impact.
What Makes Plant-based Diets Sustainable?
In a recent survey conducted by The Good Food Institute, almost one-third of consumers in the United States highlighted the environment as one of their top priorities.
This is why choosing plant-based alternatives has become so popular. The recent growth in the plant-based food spaces is extremely encouraging for people seeking to live healthier, more environmentally-friendly lifestyles.
Compared to those that are rich in animal products, plant-based diets are known as more sustainable as they require less energy from fossil fuels, less land and less water to grow.
Here are a few reasons why plant-based diets yield more sustainable outcomes for the environment.
Plant-based Diets Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gases have increased global temperatures by around 1℃ since the preindustrial era, according to OurWorldInData, and many scientists have estimated that greenhouse gas emissions will be up 80% by 2050.
Further, according to Reuters, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock production is responsible for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
In order to curb the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, many have turned to plant-based diets. UCLA Sustainability states that in just one year, animal husbandry creates as much carbon emissions as the entire transportation section. UCLA has also claimed that 20 servings of vegetables have fewer emissions than a single serving of beef. With such drastic differences in emissions, it is not shocking that plant-based diets are appealing to many consumers.
From a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, it is without doubt; significantly better for the environment to eat plant-based foods.
Plant-based Diets are More Practical for Water Conservation
According to OneGreenPlanet, around 26% of the world’s land is dedicated to grazing livestock and around 33% is dedicated to growing feed for the livestock. OneGreenPlanet also predicts that while one acre of land can produce 250 pounds of beef, this one acre could produce 50,000 pounds of carrots or 53,000 pounds of potatoes.
How does this relate to water conservation?
Plant-based foods consume significantly less water and carbon to produce than animal-sourced foods. It has been estimated that by eating a plant-based diet, the average person can help to conserve 162,486 gallons of water a year, which is effectively the same as halving their carbon footprint.
From a water perspective, using simple mathematics, it is much more efficient and cost-effective to eat plant foods than animal foods.
Why Plant-based Diets Reduce Deforestation
Home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, forests are complex ecosystems that are essential to life on Earth. Forests supply the oxygen we breathe, provide habitats for wildlife, and help to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, deforestation – the removal of rainforest or trees from land that is then converted to a non-forest use – threatens and undermines their positive impact..
A study conducted by Cornell University recently discovered that deforestation has double the effect of global warming. As such, tackling deforestation is high on the agenda of the environmentally-conscious, and turning to a plant-based diet could help with this.
According to Mongabay, around 80% of deforested land in the Amazon is now used for cattle ranching and this figure is increasing year-on-year. Analysis from The Nature Conservancy and the World Resource Institute (WRI), estimates that 42% of the total emissions reductions that could be achieved from reforestation depend on reducing pasture land.
Efforts like reforestation and rewilding can only take effect if more consumers make a switch to a more sustainable plant-based diet and reduce the demand for land requirements to rear livestock.
The Long-Term Effects of Plant-based Diets on the Environment
As we’ve discussed, in just one year, animal husbandry creates as much carbon emissions as the entire transportation sector. Simply put, if every person gave up meat and dairy products on one or more days of the week; ideally, all days of the week, we would save the environment from thousands of tons of carbon emissions.
However, it is important to note that when reducing meat consumption, we should be mindful of how foods are being grown and transported to ensure they are sustainable. Be cognizant about what it means to go plant-based. Transitioning to a more sustainable present will have positive long-term impacts on the future of our environment.
Ultimately, adopting a plant-based diet is a proven way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save water and land usage, and help address the growing problem of deforestation. Plant-based diets are not only better for the environment but they are also efficient and good for animal welfare. Proposed reductions that stem from a plant-based diet would help mitigate the direct and indirect threats to Earth’s health and habitability for us, and for all wildlife, flora, and fauna.
If we all reduced meat and dairy our diets and chose plant-based alternatives of these foods, we would save at least 50% of our water use. We would save untouched habitats like delicate rainforests and marshes from being destroyed from deforestation in order to produce more livestock feed, and we would create less pollution in the waterways that feed oceans and indirectly threaten human, animal, and plant lives.
The Bottom Line
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