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How your diet could change the world

World meat production has quadrupled in the past 50 years and farmed animals now outnumber people by more than three to one.1  In other words, the livestock population is expanding faster than the human population and is projected to continue to expand as the Chinese middle classes increasingly adopt meat-centred diets and as the Western taste for meat, eggs and dairy products continues to grow (along with our waistlines).This trend will contribute 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

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2005 report states that hunger causes the death of more than five million children a year. 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.
Land availability is one of the main constraints on food production. 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. This is because livestock consume much more protein, water and calories than they produce. Most of the protein from vegetable feeds is used for the animal’s bodily functions and not converted to meat, eggs or milk.
How your diet can help
Studies indicate that a varied vegan diet requires about a third of the land needed for conventional Western diets.
Quite simply, we do not have enough land to feed everyone on an animal-based diet. So while 840 million people do not have enough food, we continue to waste valuable agricultural land by obtaining only a small fraction of its potential calorific value.
The world’s population is increasing and viable agricultural lands are diminishing. If we are to avoid future global food scarcity we must find sustainable ways of utilising our natural resource base. Industrial livestock production is unsustainable and unjustifiable.

Help protect... fertile lands

The World Resources Institute (WRI) states that nearly 40 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded.  The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) predicts that if land loss continues at current rates an additional 150-360 million hectares could go out of production by 2020.5
Increasing population is therefore not the only factor that we have to consider when looking at future food production. Viable agricultural lands are diminishing, so there is less and less productive soil per person.  Continuing to intensify production on already degraded lands is not a sustainable solution.
How your diet can help
Overgrazing is blamed for 35 per cent of soil degradation, deforestation for 30 per cent and agriculture for 27 per cent.6These main causes are directly or indirectly related to the consumption of animal products.It is a vicious cycle in which declining soil fertility pushes people to find new land to expand the agricultural base.  This often leads to deforestation, which in turn causes soil degradation.  This process is the epitome of unsustainable agricultural practice.  Switching to a vegan diet can help to prevent further deterioration of precious fertile lands.

They said it...
"...the booming poultry industry will pose feed demands that will far exceed current supplies." - United Nations FAO Report 2006

Help protect... forests

We need forests.  They store large amounts of carbon dioxide, release oxygen, regulate climate, prevent floods, protect soils and harbour millions of varieties of plant and animal species. They are also home to thousands of indigenous people whose livelihoods and ways of life are rapidly being destroyed.
How your diet can help
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.  WRI assessments suggest that 20-30 percent of the world’s forest areas have already been converted to agriculture.  As agricultural lands become more and more degraded, most of the land for replacement and expansion comes from the world’s forests.  The expansion of agricultural land accounts for more than 60 per cent of worldwide deforestation.8
Most of this land is used to graze beef cattle. The UN FAO report Livestock's Long Shadow states that "By the year 2010 cattle are projected to be grazing on some 24 million hectares of neotropical land that was forest in 2000."9
This process has become known as the ‘hamburgerisation’ of the forests.  Switching to a vegan diet can significantly reduce your contribution to the destruction of the world’s forests.4

Help protect... biodiversity

No one really knows just how many species there are on Earth.  Estimates range from 2 million to 100 million, but most experts opt for a best estimate of about 10 million.  Of these, only 1.4 million have been named and only a small percentage of these have been studied in any detail.10‘Livestock account for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass, and the land area they now occupy was once habitat for wildlife.’13The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of threatened species shows that 18 per cent of all of the vertebrates they assessed in 2002 were threatened with extinction.  This included 24 per cent of mammals and 30 per cent of fish.  49 per cent of plants assessed in 2002 were threatened with extinction.11  It has been estimated that the current rate of species loss is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than it would be naturally.12Statistics such as these have led many environmental scientists to believe that we are in the process of a mass extinction. This loss of genetic diversity will have serious consequences for food production and environmental sustainability.

How your diet can help

Habitat destruction is the single greatest factor in species being lost for ever.  Deforestation, land degradation and intensive arable farming all represent thedestruction of ecosystems, resulting in massive loss of biodiversity.

A report commissioned by the FAO, USAID, and the World Bank concluded that industrial livestock production contributes to species loss through “its demand for concentrate feed, which changes land use and intensifies cropping.  The production of feed grains, in particular, adds additional stress on biodiversity through habitat loss and it damages in ecosystem functioning.”14Tropical rainforests, although covering only 10 per cent of the world’s surface, are thought to contain about 90 per cent of all species – many of which have never been studied.15  The wholesale destruction of forest environments to provide grazing land for cattle and to grow feed for livestock contributes direct to loss of biodiversity.  Other factors affecting species depletion include pollution, climate change and invasion by introduced species.  All these factors relate direct to livestock production.

They said it...

“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.”16 (United Nations FAO Report 2006) Switching to a vegan diet will help to maintain biodiversity.

Help protect... water

The United Nations Water Assessment Programme states: “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Earth, with its diverse and abundant life forms, including over six billion humans, is facing a serious water crisis.”17


This situation is predicted to worsen as our population expands and consumption per capita increases with more and more people adopting resource-intensive Western meateating habits.
How your diet can help
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.18
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.
Since a large percentage of the crops fed to European farmed animals are grown in developing countries, this wasted water comes not only from European reserves but also from the very countries where drinking water is most scarce. Switching to a vegan diet will help significantly reduce the world’s water requirements.

Water pollution
Agriculture is also the number one water polluter.  Slurry from cattle and other livestock pollutes groundwater, streams and rivers. The livestock sector is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution.19Manure and slurry contain high levels of nitrogen and phosphor.  These elements can leach into groundwater and run off to pollute lakes, killing the fish and endangering the health of other animals. Ammonia is also given off and can cause acid rain.Additionally, demand for animal feed is one of the major reasons behind the intensification of crop production.  It is estimated that more than 4.5 billion litres of pesticide are now used annually in the UK.20  The harmful environmental effect of pesticides is now well documented. They can affect wildlife populations – from beetles to songbirds – and many are also deemed detrimental to human health. By switching to a vegan diet you will help to improve water quality.

Help protect... the oceans

The single greatest threat to marine ecology is over-fishing.  Catch sizes now regularly exceed sustainable levels, a trend that could have devastating consequences for the health of our oceans. Yet worldwide demand is increasing.The problems caused by fishing fleets are not limited to the fish species they target.  The marine environment is little understood, and the effect on the ecosystem of the removal of thousands of fish every day is difficult to estimate. However, some consequences of large-scale commercial fishing (particularly those using driftnets, purse seine nets and trawl nets) are obvious.
They said it...
“Increasingly destructive fishing methods and the staggering growth of many modern commercial fisheries… have spelt disaster for whales and dolphins around the world.” - The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.21
Fish farming
With wild fish populations crashing because of over-fishing, attention has turned to fish farming to try to pick up the shortfall.  Aquaculture is now the world’s most rapidly expanding area of animal production.  This has led to enormous problems.Farmed fish are fed on meal made from wild fish.  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.22Fish are given chemical treatments in their feed or bathed in organophosphates or synthetic pyrethroids to try to limit infestation by parasitic sea lice.  Many of the chemicals used are listed as dangerous under the EC Dangerous Substances Directive, yet they are being released into our oceans and used to treat fish that will later be eaten by humans.23  Additionally, fish waste and the chemicals used to treat disease and infestations are all environmental pollutants.
How your diet can help
By stopping eating fish – be it farmed or wild-caught – we can reverse the destruction of ocean environments.

Help protect... the climate

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 industrialisation has caused the effect to intensify.
How your diet can help
Meat eating is responsible for at least a third of all biological methane emissions.24  Methane is produced by bacteria in the stomachs of sheep, cattle and goats and is released through the animals’ bodily functions.Molecule for molecule, methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.25
They said it...
“The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.” (Transport causes 13.5%) - The United Nations FAO26Factory farming uses massive inputs of fossil fuels.  The vast majority of this energy is used in producing, transporting and processing feed.27 A vegan diet uses substantially less energy than a diet based on animal products and therefore contributes much less to air pollution, acidification, oil spills, habitat destruction and global warming. A University of Chicago study comparing a typical US meat-based diet with a vegan diet found that the ‘typical’ US diet generates the equivalent of nearly 1.5 tonnes more carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan diet. The authors of the study concluded that it would be more environmentally effective to go vegan than to switch to a petrol electric hybrid car.28The 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

It is widely agreed that agriculture is one of the most environmentally damaging activities that man undertakes.  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.We should all be aware of the impact that our lifestyles have on the world around us: switching to a vegan diet will significantly limit your individual impact on our increasingly threatened environment.Discover for yourself what a difference a vegan diet can make by visiting: http://www.myfootprint.org/en/  These sites will help you to calculate your ecological foot print.  First put in omnivore, then change it to vegan and see the difference this makes!
Food miles
Environmentally conscious consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of buying locally produced food to cut down on ‘food miles’ (the distance travelled by lorry, ship or aeroplane by our food before it reaches our plates).
The livestock connection:
When considering food miles, many people think only of the miles travelled by the ‘end product.’ They think that British chicken, pork or beef is an environmentally friendly option because the animals have not arrived from overseas, building up air miles.However, British animals increasingly eat feeds such as soya, manioc and tapioca that have been imported from abroad, consequently the environmental footprint left by eating British meat can be just as great as eating imported animal products.Vegan foods are better for the environment because eating vegetable protein direct, rather than through the intermediary of an animal, uses far less land. Eating locally grown vegetables is better still.


The Vegan Society (UK) is an educational charity that promotes and supports the vegan lifestyle. The Society was formed in 1944 by a group of vegetarians who recognised the ethical compromises of eating eggs and dairy products.

Also see: Environmental impact of vegan vs. conventional diets in the UK (pdf file) by Stephen Walsh

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