by Ben Kluvanek
(5 minute read)
The environmental crisis represents one of the biggest battles facing the world today. To help protect our clean air, wild natural spaces, and healthy oceans for the benefit of everybody, we can all do our part.
As many Australians have already discovered, each of us has an opportunity to reduce our environmental impact by making small changes to the way we eat.
A plant-based diet uses less energy and greenhouse gases.
Reducing our demand for energy and our greenhouse gas emissions is essential to mitigate the dangers that a changing climate poses to both people and our wildlife. It’s a matter of justice.
Agriculture accounts for 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and its emissions are projected to increase by 70 percent within just a few decades (Smetana et al 2015). Within food production, the highest impact belongs to meat (Steinfeld et al 2006).
So, it makes sense that reducing your meat intake and including more plants in your diet is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Vegetarian diets use only 40 percent of the energy to produce (Marlow et al, 2009). Shifting away from animal products towards plant-based options can cut greenhouse gas emissions from food production by up to three quarters.
Cutting out meat and dairy entirely can reduce emissions even further – by 90 percent (Röös et al 2016).
A plant-based diet reduces our demand for land
We’re all aware that climate change is the biggest environmental challenge facing us today. In fact, habitat destruction is equally urgent. Wildlife can usually cope with one stressor at a time, but it can’t cope with the stress of climate change and habitat destruction combined. Addressing both is critical.
Out of all the ways we use land, grazing by farm animals is easily the largest.
In fact, farm animals graze over a quarter of the planet’s land (Steinfeld et al, 2006). One third of all arable land is dedicated to producing food for farm animals.
The expansion of animal farming into forests is responsible for most of the world’s deforestation. Even habitats that don’t have trees do have ecosystems. Australia’s dryland ecosystems, for instance, are home to unique yet underappreciated biodiversity. This is an example of what we could lose if the expansion of farmland into natural areas continues.
Compared to beef, plant-based proteins (e.g. pulses and beans) use only one fifth of the land (Alexander et al 2017). Shifting away from meat and animal products and towards fruits, vegetables and pulses can reduce land use substantially (Röös et al 2016) .
This means less demand on the remaining natural habitat, and more space for the environment to catch its breath.
A plant-based diet uses less water
Fresh water is one of the most limited resources on our planet; less than 2 percent of the world’s water is actually available in rivers, lakes and groundwater.
When too much fresh water is taken from the environment, the plants and animals suffer. This is what is happening in the Murray-Darling Basin – the over extraction of water has caused enormous fish kills and is threatening our bird and wildlife populations, many of which are nationally significant (Davies et al 2018).
The animal farming sector is the largest source of water pollution, and this pollution leads to coastal dead zones, the loss of coral reefs, and even threats to human health (Steinfeld et al 2006).
Moving towards a plant-based diet means reducing your contribution to agricultural water use by one third (Marlow et al 2009). This is a great way to lessen our impact on this precious resource.
A plant-based diet is better for our oceans
Sadly, most of the world’s fish populations are overfished or have even collapsed. Beyond the impact this has on the fish themselves, the loss of fish population has effects that ripple throughout ecosystems.
The fishing industry also causes issues like bycatch, which unnecessarily kills fish, seabirds, turtles, and even seals and dolphins; and ghost nets, which drift through the ocean causing the deaths of even more of these sea creatures.
Transitioning away from eating fish, and substituting them in your diet with plant-based protein sources, means you can have a healthy, wholesome diet without contributing to the degradation of marine ecosystems. This way, the ocean’s fish and wildlife populations can recover, allowing everybody to enjoy their beauty.
Making the transition
To switch to a more environmentally friendly diet rich in plant-based foods, where do we start?
A great first steppingstone is Meat-Free Mondays. By making the switch for one day each week, you can become accustomed to the rich diversity of meals available in a plant-based diet.
Plant-based diets have exploded in popularity, particularly here in Australia, and chefs are catching on. Book shop shelves are lined with cookbooks that focus on easy and satisfying plant-based meals, like Jamie Oliver’s latest book.
Making these changes is easy and fun. Best of all, the changes are better for the animals, they are great for your body, and they are environmentally friendly.
About the author
Ben Kluvanek is a researcher in environmental policy. He has degrees in both ecology and economics, and is currently writing his doctoral thesis at the University of Adelaide. His work has been published in leading scientific journals in both ecology and general sciences.
- Alexander et al 2017, ‘Could consumption of insects, cultured meat or imitation meat reduce global agricultural land use?’, Global Food Security.
- Davies et al 2018, ‘Murray-Darling: when the river runs dry’, <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2018/apr/05/murray-darling-when-the-river-runs-dry>
- Marlow et al 2009, ‘Diet and the environment: does what you eat matter?’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
- Röös et al 2016, ‘Protein futures for Western Europe: potential land use and climate impacts in 2050’, Regional Environmental Change.
- Smetana et al 2015, ‘Meat alternatives: life cycle assessment of most known meat substitutes’, The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
- Steinfeld et al 2006, Livestock's long shadow, FAO report.