What’s veganism all about? Is it really all that good for you? Let’s take a look at why a vegan diet is an important part of sustainable living and how to try it out for yourself.
What is Veganism?
First of all, what does it mean to be vegan? Veganism is about more than strapping on sandals and making your own granola — it’s a growing trend that includes dietary and lifestyle changes in favor of a healthier, more sustainable impact.
In basic terms, vegans abstain from animal products or products derived from the use of animals. This definition can be applied as basically as adopting a plant-based diet without meat, dairy, or eggs — or as broadly as excluding the use of wool or honey. Many vegans have different approaches to their practices, but the underlying principle behind the idea is to consume foods and products in a way that does not rely on animals.
The choice to go vegan can be made for moral, health, or environmental reasons.
- Moral: Some vegans feel very strongly that the rights of animals should be upheld at all times, and that animals should under no circumstances be used as a food source for humans.
- Health: Veganism has been a popular dietary trend in recent decades, as many have noted the negative way high-fat, high-cholesterol animal products affect human health. A vegan diet may not be healthy for everyone, but some have noticed a better quality of life, lower risk of heart disease and cancer, cleaner eating habits, and even weight loss from going vegan.
- Environmental: Going vegan can have a significant environmental impact and reduce an individual’s carbon footprint. The amount of natural resources it takes to raise livestock for consumption is astronomical compared to the raising of plants. With increased awareness of the climate threats to our planet, more and more individuals, especially young people, are adopting veganism in an effort to help the environment.
Everyone can make up their own mind on the moral and health reasons to go vegan, but the environmental effects of a vegan diet are difficult to ignore. Let’s take a closer look at the way veganism and sustainable living go hand-in-hand.
Veganism and Sustainable Living
Livestock farming also contributes negatively to environmental conditions such as climate change, as more greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere, causing the temperature of the globe to increase, which leads to disastrous consequences in extreme weather, mass extinctions of fragile species and ecosystem destruction.
Reducing Food’s Environmental Impact
“Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers” by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, published in the journal, Science, in 2018, evaluates global emissions from food sources alone. The article states, “With current diets and production practices, feeding 7.6 billion people is degrading terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, depleting water resources, and driving climate change.” The article goes on to explain how the consequences of environmental choices at the levels of the producer and consumer affect emissions, land use, and freshwater consumption.
Animal Products and Climate Change
In their study, researchers Poore and Nemecek explain how the environmental impact from food production is larger with animal products over plant products. There are five reasons for this:
- It takes a lot of food and energy to feed animals — for most animals, more than twice as much food and energy than what is output when the animal is converted to food for consumption. This is referred to as the feed-to-edible ratio, and it’s very inefficient.
- Deforestation for agricultural purposes occurs primarily to create land for growing animal feed or pasture for raising livestock. This raises the emissions for the land’s new uses and eliminates the potential reduction of emissions by the natural vegetation.
- The animals raised for food contribute their own emissions through enteric fermentation (generation of methane), manure. and aquaculture ponds (fish farming).
- More emissions occur during the processing of animals and animal products, especially effluent from slaughterhouses (which is an environmental and public health hazard)
- Waste is generated from the production of animal products at a much higher rate than plant products, as they are more susceptible to spoiling and regulated by higher quality standards.
These five reasons, magnified by the demand for animal products worldwide, have contributed to a rapidly evolving environmental crisis. The ubiquity of the issue around the globe is what makes it such a difficult challenge to tackle. However, this study found that one of the greatest impacts for reducing emissions from food production is the swap individuals can make to plant-based products over animal products.
The Individual Impact of Going Vegan
Although changes are necessary at all levels of the supply chain to lessen the negative environmental impact of food production, the study found that individuals carry the largest potential positive impact, just by making changes to their diet and economic decisions.
Electing a vegan diet that eliminates animal products in favor of plant-based alternatives has the potential to reduce land use for farming by 76%, reduce the strain on freshwater resources by blank, and reduce emissions by 49%, on a global scale, according to the article. This estimate was based on the 2010 reference year. Since then, sales of plant-based foods have risen as veganism is growing in popularity.
In the US alone, which has a meat consumption rate per capita three times the global average, individuals can magnify their impact even further. From the global potential reduction of emissions on an individual level at 61%, consumers in the US can reduce it to 73%.
It doesn’t have to end there. Individuals can increase environmental benefits by avoiding producers of other high-impact products, such as oils, sugars, alcohols and stimulants. In reducing consumption of these products by 20%, a consumer can contribute to reducing land use for these products by 39%, reducing emissions by 31-46%, and limiting scarcity-weighted freshwater withdrawals up to a staggering 87%.
Everyone Plays a Role in Sustainable Living
Everyone plays a role, from the researchers who study the environmental effects of vegan diets and sustainable living, to the producers who grow the food, to the consumers who buy the food and the policymakers who regulate the exchange and quality standards.
By continuing to explore our environmental impact, find new ways to reduce the negative effects of food production, and communicate information to consumers to make educated economic choices, we can work together to practice cleaner, healthier, and sustainable living.
Veganism — Is it All or Nothing?
Making the choice to go vegan could be the biggest impact you could have on the environment. In an interview with The Independent, Poore said, “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”
To limit the consequences of your food choices, reducing your meat and dairy intake is helpful, and paying attention to where your food comes from is better still. Yet, according to Poore, when it comes to maximizing your environmental impact, eliminating animal products rather than sourcing sustainable meat and dairy is even better.
Still, it’s not all or nothing. Practice sustainable living and going vegan a few meals per week might not achieve the percentages in Poore’s study, but it does help. If what you can do right now is skip red meat and go for a plate of locally grown veggies, instead, your body and your planet will thank you.
How to Try Veganism for Yourself (and the Planet)
Even if you only incorporate vegan meals into part of your week, you’re making a positive impact on your world. If you’ve never tried vegan food before, start small. Try using a meat alternative, or skip the processed food and opt for an extra serving of vegetables instead. For protein, reach for nut butters, beans, and legumes. Don’t forget the iron in seeds and cereals, and the vitamin powers of dark leafy greens like kale and spinach.
To make a plate of veggies more exciting, experiment with tangy and spicy sauces, and swap out bases of carbohydrates (in moderation) such as pasta, rice, quinoa, potatoes, oats, and more.
By making simple changes here and there, before you know it, you’ll have incorporated a vegan diet into your sustainable lifestyle, and be well on your way towards saving the planet. Now that’s something to feel good about.
It’s easy to be vegan when you can grow your own delicious produce in your backyard. At Couch Mountain, we value sustainability in all its forms. Whether or not you’re ready to go completely vegan, our mountain community can offer you the chance to enjoy an environmentally-friendly lifestyle in the heart of Western North Carolina. Schedule your self-guided tour today.
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