Environment and diet


World meat production has quadrupled in the past 50 years and farmed animals now outnumber people by more than three to one[1].

This contributes to continuing malnourishment in the developing world, global warming, widespread pollution, deforestation, land degradation, water scarcity and species extinction because more animals mean more crops are needed to feed them: the planet cannot feed both increasing human and farmed animal populations.


So if we are trying to reduce our car use, limit the amount of water we waste, become more ‘energy-efficient’ and generally lessen our environmental impact, we must also examine the most important factor of our personal ecological footprint: what we eat.


Help protect the hungry

With the world’s population expected to increase from 6 billion to reach 9 billion by 2050, one of the most urgent questions we now face is how we, as a species, will feed ourselves in the 21st century. The Earth has only a limited area of viable agricultural land, so how this land is used is central to our ability to feed the world. Western diets play a large part in depriving the world’s poor of much needed food. Most of the protein from vegetable feeds is used for the animal’s bodily functions and not converted to meat, eggs or milk. Studies indicate that a varied vegan diet requires about a third of the land needed for conventional Western diets[2].


Help protect fertile lands, forests and biodiversity

Viable agricultural lands are diminishing[3]. Overgrazing is blamed for 35 per cent of soil degradation, deforestation for 30 per cent and agriculture for 27 per cent[4].


Forests are being destroyed not only to provide wood, paper and fuel but also to provide land for grazing cattle and for growing crops to feed to farmed animals. The expansion of agricultural land accounts for more than 60 per cent of worldwide deforestation[5]. Most of this land is used to graze beef cattle.


“Livestock play an important role in the current biodiversity crisis, as they contribute directly or indirectly to all these drivers of biodiversity loss at the local and global level.”[6] United Nations FAO Report 2006


Help protect the water and the oceans

Although statistics vary, it is safe to say that it takes at least three times the amount of water to feed a meat eater compared with that used to feed a vegan[7]. This is largely because arable land has to be irrigated to make it agriculturally viable and to increase and improve crop yields. As has been shown, much of this land is entirely wasted by growing feed crops for livestock rather than food for direct consumption by people. The water used on this land – as well as that consumed direct by livestock – represents yet another wasted resource. The livestock sector is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution[8].


The single greatest threat to marine ecology is over-fishing. The problems caused by fishing fleets are not limited to the fish species they target. With wild fish populations crashing because of over-fishing, attention has turned to fish farming to try to pick up the shortfall.

More than three tonnes of wild-caught fish are needed to produce one tonne of farmed salmon. For newly farmed marine species such as halibut and cod, the ratio of wild fish used in feed to farmed fish produced is about 5:1. Far from helping to prevent wild fish stocks from plummeting further, fish farming actually increases over-fishing[9].


Help prevent global warming

When carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are released into the air they blanket the Earth, trapping heat inside the atmosphere. This is known as the greenhouse effect, and it keeps our planet at a temperature at which life can thrive. The problem is the massive increase in the output of these and other greenhouse gases since industrialization has caused the effect to intensify.


Meat eating is responsible for at least a third of all biological methane emissions[10]. Methane is produced by bacteria in the stomachs of sheep, cattle and goats and is released through the animals’ bodily functions. Factory farming uses massive inputs of fossil fuels. The vast majority of this energy is used in producing, transporting and processing feed[11]. The felling of forests to grow food for the exploding population of cattle, pigs and chickens, results in fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide and is a major contributor to global warming.


Help protect the planet, go vegan!

As consumers, we can make a difference by choosing food that is produced in an environmentally sustainable way. As has been shown, livestock consume more protein and calories than they produce. This alone makes animal farming an unsustainable use of the Earth’s resources. On top of this, the consumption of animal products contributes to global warming, pollution, water scarcity, land degradation, deforestation and loss of biodiversity – in other words, all the major environmental problems.


Saving the planet is one reason to go vegan. There are many more: by going vegan you will save the lives of the thousands of animals you would have eaten otherwise and save many animals from cruel exploitation on factory farms.


Source: The Vegan Society


[1] Based on FAOSTAT, 2006 accessed on 21/06/2006

[2] Based on P.W. Gerbens-Leenes et al., "A Method to Determine Land Requirements Relating to Food Consumption Patterns", Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 2002; 90:47-58. and Testing a complete-diet model for estimating the land resource requirements of food consumption and agricultural carrying capacity: The New York State example Christian J.Peters, Jennifer L. Wilkins, and Gary W. Fick, 2007, Published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems: 22(2); 145-153.

[3] IFPRI, ‘How Large a Threat is Soil Degradation?’ 2020 Newsletter, March 1999

[4] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), GEO: Global Environment Outlook 3 Press Release

[5] Goodland & D. Pimentel, ‘Sustainability and Integrity in the Agriculture Sector,’ Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health, D. Pimentel, L. Westra, R. F. Noss (eds), Island Press, 2000

[6] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Livestock's Long Shadow, FAO Rome 2006, page 182.

[7] D. Renault and W.W. Wallender, Agricultural water Management, Nutritional Water Productivity and Diets, Volume 45, Number 3, August 2000 , pp. 275-296(22)

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Livestock's Long Shadow, FAO Rome 2006, page xxii

[9] Naylor, Goldburg, Primavera, Kautsky, Beveridge, Clay, Folkes, Lubchenco, Mooney, & Troell, ‘Effect of aquaculture on world fish supplies,’ Nature 405, 1017-1024 (2000)

[10] National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study published in the February 2005 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters

[11] de Haan, Steinfeld & Blackburn, ‘Livestock and the Environment: Finding a Balance’ FAO, USAID, World Bank, 1998