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Even if you’re a carnivore at heart, you already know the argument for going vegan – it’s better for the animals, your health and the environment. While the first two are irrevocably true, a recent study published in Elementa, a journal on the science of the anthropocene, reveals that being vegan may not be as sustainable as you think. So the question now remains: How much are you really helping the environment by changing your diet?
On one hand, animal agriculture does, indeed, have a devastating toll on our land and resources. Saving water by turning off the tap sounds easy enough, but slicing into your glistening steak dinner isn’t exactly eco-friendly. For starters, growing enough food for farm animals requires a great deal of fertilizers, land and water. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just one pound of meat while only 25 gallons are required to grow one pound of wheat, reports Peta.
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Add this depletion of resources to the fact that animal waste is a leading cause of pollution in our fresh water, and it sounds like a recipe for disaster.
In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has even linked animal agriculture to the contamination of aquatic ecosystems, soil and drinking water. The manure, pesticides and fertilizers that come from massive feedlots and factory farms may very well be harming our oceans as much as human sound pollution. So what’s the solution? Cut the meat. (From your diet, that is.)
According to the United Nations, a vegan diet can feed more people than an animal-based diet. Studies have estimated that the 1992 food supply could have fed about 6.3 billion people on a purely vegetarian diet, 4.2 billion people on an 85 percent vegetarian diet or 3.2 billion people on a 75 percent vegetarian diet.
Considering that global food demand grows by 200,000 people every day, and the UN Population Division projects that the world’s population will reach 9.2 billion by 2050, maximizing the bang for people’s edible buck is becoming more important than ever.
But even if these statistics are true, the new study in Elementa argues that veganism isn’t actually the best way to maximize long-term sustainable land use. Researchers considered the agricultural effect of the vegan diet, two vegetarian diets (one includes dairy, the other includes dairy and eggs) and four omnivorous diets, each with varying degrees of vegetarian influence. Based on these models, the vegan diet would feed fewer people in the long run. While this isn’t an argument to start sharpening your butcher knives, the study does say that striving to eat plant-based diets with some meat every now and then is the best way to use our land more sustainably.
America’s food trends seems to align with this goal of complementing a plant-based diet with a few meat-including meals. In past years, vegan food companies mainly focused on the six percent of Americans who identify as vegans. Since 2015, though, the number of “flexitarians” – or people eating meat but less of it – has grown. In fact, research shows that between 26 to 41 percent of surveyed Americans claim to have lowered their meat consumption in the past year.
Why could flexitarianism benefit the environment? The average (non-vegan) U.S. consumer today requires more than 2.5 acres (longer than two football fields) of land each year to sustain his or her current diet. That number drastically decreases as you reduce meat consumption, thus freeing up land to feed more people. But when this is applied to the global population, the vegan diet actually ends up wasting available land because we use different types of land to produce different kinds of food, Quartz explains.
Cultivated cropland grows vegetables, fruits and nuts. Grazing land, on the other hand, doesn’t grow crops but it is useful for feeding the animals we eat, such as cattle. Lastly, perennial cropland supports crops that can be harvested multiple times before dying, such as the grain and hay used to feed livestock.
Researchers found that the vegan diet is the only diet that doesn’t utilize perennial cropland, thus wasting the chance to produce a lot of food. Think about it this way: If a vegan diet solely relies on crops that are planted and harvested once a year, what do you do with the land and resources during off-seasons? It gets unused, similar to the way Southern California residents haven’t used their rain gear in months.
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From a purely land-use perspective, if modern agriculture in the United States was adjusted to the vegan diet, then 735 million Americans would be fed, according to Elementa’s study. However, if we rely on a dairy-friendly vegetarian diet, that number would increase to 807 million people.
Changing your diet to include less meat isn’t as hard as it might sound, either. Some experts, like healthy living author Mark Bittman, suggest eating animal products every day, but only for dinner. Others promote “beginner,” “advanced” and “expert” levels of flexitarianism, gradually moving from two meatless days per week to five. Regardless of the approach taken, though, most flexitarian enthusiasts suggest focusing on increasing your amount of vegetarian meals, rather than fixating on a certain number of meatless meals to reach.
But of course, before you start drastically changing your diet, you should consider that these findings are just from one study, and the fact that many vegans don’t primarily change their lifestyles to be eco-friendly. Some people prefer leaving animals out of their diets to, well, leave animals out of it. It’s really about your personal philosophy. Regardless, the study is definitely some food for thought.