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Vegan diet mitigates global climate change

Sarah Bryant

By: Sarah Bryant

Although veganism as a movement has existed since the mid-1940s, the last ten years has seen the vegan lifestyle catapulted from niche to mainstream awareness as more and more consumers begin to replace animal products in their diet with plant-based alternatives. While the majority of vegans are motivated by an ethical opposition to the unnecessary killing and exploitation of animals, a growing body of evidence suggests that, in addition to benefitting our furry and feathered friends, opting for a plant-based diet has significant advantages for the environment.

Research on the relationship between diet and sustainability has been ongoing for years, and a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has ignited the conversation once again by suggesting that the adoption of plant-based diets could significantly reduce our contribution to climate change. Scientists at the University of Oxford were interested in exploring how changes in diet might influence the effects of increasing global temperatures, so the team of researchers evaluated and compared the health and environmental impact of four global diet scenarios: continuing to eat the way we do now; consuming more produce and less animal products; eating a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet; and embracing a vegan diet completely free of meat, dairy, and eggs.

The results show that of the four diet scenarios, worldwide adoption of veganism would have the largest impact on our contribution to global warming by decreasing agriculture-related carbon emissions by 29-70%. Developing nations would reap the most benefit from switching to vegan diets in terms of health and environmental impact.

The fact that livestock production pays a major contribution to the current environmental crisis has been known for some time. In its current state, the international food system is responsible for over 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and animal agriculture alone accounts for roughly 80% of this problem.

The PNAS study reaffirms already existing evidence that veganism is environmentally beneficial. Other studies have found similar rates of reduction in emissions associated with lower consumption of animal products and have named promotion of plant-based diets “indispensable” in accomplishing climatologists’ goal of preventing a 2 ℃ rise in global temperature over the next several decades. Veganism also has the potential to help prevent major agricultural expansion, thus limiting the need for increased farmland.

The realities of climate change are no longer up for debate. Global warming is real and in the coming years will prove to be one of the greatest challenges faced by humans in our history as a species. We must do everything in our power to combat this issue, including diminishing our reliance on fossil fuels, utilizing sustainable farming practices like crop biotechnology, and modifying our diets where necessary. Much like these other solutions, eating a plant-based diet is not a magic bullet to solving the problems of climate change and food security, but rather a single tool among many.

The idea of adopting a vegan diet is difficult for many people to accept. Food plays an integral role in culture and self identity and, as Oxford researchers acknowledge, “significant changes in the global food system would be necessary for regional diets to match the dietary patterns” outlined in the study. However, even those who consider veganism too radical a concept can recognize that there is more than enough evidence to warrant, at the very least, a serious reduction in our overall consumption of animals and animal byproducts.

Sarah Bryant, Global Calculator:

In creating my pathway, I wanted to explore how a focus on less meat consumption and more efficient farming practices could help reduce GHG emissions and prevent a 2 *C rise in global temperature. I selected close to a Level 4 on quantity of meat which equates to an average of 14 kCal of meat per person per day. I did the same for both crop yields and land use efficiency. Accomplishing a Level 4 in these areas would require an extremely ambitious 100% increase in crop yields and 30% reduction in new farmland by 2050. After selecting Level 1 and Level 2 for all other areas, my pathway resulted in a trajectory that would keep our global temperature increase under 2 *C until the year 2100. While adopting a global vegetarian diet and creating a hyper-efficient worldwide agricultural system would both be challenging to say the least, raising awareness about the benefits of lower meat consumption and continuing to utilize resources like crop biotechnology can each help us move closer to this goal.

Sarah Bryant is a science enthusiast, animal rights advocate, environmentalist, and local chapter leader for Vegan GMO. She is currently pursuing a degree in biology at Portland State University.

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