There are different motivations to switch to a plant-based diet such as for personal health, due to concerns about animal treatment, and to protect our environment. These reasons are motivating more and more of us to eliminate meat and dairy from our food.
At first, I was motivated to change my food because I felt that I needed to take action to reduce my lifestyle’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions into the environment.
I used the Ecological Footprint Calculator and to my horror discovered that if everyone lived like me, it would take 3.5 Earths per year to sustain my lifestyle.
As a result, I decided not to eat any more meat or dairy to help to alleviate the impact that my life is having on the planet. After changing my diet to plant-based, I re-calculated my score, and my footprint came down to 2.9 Earths per year. It’s still horrifying, but eating plants makes a difference.
Producing our food contributes to climate change because agricultural and farming practices cause the greenhouse gases CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide to be released into the atmosphere.
Growing food, raising livestock, and getting the food to market all use fossil fuels at every step of the process of raising and growing our food. Fossil fuels (that generate C02) are used to operate farm machinery, to transport produce around the nation and around the globe by air and container ship, to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides, as well as to refrigerate and process food.
The widespread use of fertilizers for agricultural practices produces nitrous oxide and it accounts for most of our human-caused emissions of this particular greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
And, indirectly, agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions as land use is changed to produce food and raise animals for meat and dairy more greenhouse gases are made. And the problem is worsened if forest is cleared to create farmland then less forest is available to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.
So our modern farming practices are greenhouse gas emiters, but is there any difference between growing plants for us to eat and raising livestock for meat and dairy?
The answer is a resounding yes!
One estimate suggests that on a per calorie basis, a high-meat diet (>4oz per day) produces 2.5 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a plant-based diet .
Raising farm animals tops the list when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Somewhere between 14 and 18% of all greenhouse gas generated by us humans comes from raising livestock.
One reason is that we have to feed the farm animals before we can eat them and growing grain for feed uses extra energy and fossil fuels (about one third of all crops grown in the world are merely grown to feed livestock). In the USA less than half of cropland, only about 40%, is devoted to growing food for us to eat ourselves.
Another reason that raising livestock is so bad is that livestock expel manure and manure emits methane. Ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats make lots and lots of methane – this is because they rely upon bacteria in their guts to help them digest plant materials with fermentation, and this generates methane.
An additional livestock-related generator of greenhouse gas is the transportation of meat around the world and the transportation of the animal feed to raise the animals to produce meat and dairy around the world.
Things you could consider if you want to help mitigate your personal contribution to greenhouse gas emissions:
You could eat a whole food plant-based diet that avoids processed foods. It has been estimated that per person per day greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 25% compared to “the average American diet” by eating a plant-based diet.
You could become vegetarian or replace ruminant meats with plant-based foods. Both can help reduce greenhouse emissions .
Or you could just try to eat a healthy diet with less meat and dairy.
Whichever of these options you choose, remember to buy local as much as you can, as local food means less fossil fuel use.
Remember it’s not just about you. There are changes to the systems of food production that can help too. Think about who you want to support politically – will they bring legislation that will help to change our transportation systems away from fossil fuels and promote land and forest conservation?
For some inspiration and recipes take a look at the Engine2 Diet