Happy World Vegetarian Day: Here are 3 ways eating plant-based helps the environment
If you’re vegetarian-curious, now might be the best time of the year to go all in. It’s World Vegetarian Day today, Oct. 1. It’s fairly common knowledge that eating a plant-based diet can have health benefits, but it’s also a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and continue leading a sustainable lifestyle.
The first World Vegetarian Day was held in 1977. Organized by the North American Vegetarian Society, the goal was to promote and celebrate vegetarianism and its potential ability to bring joy and compassion to those who practiced it. The following year, the International Vegetarian Union adopted the date and kept the tradition going. October is now known as World Vegetarian Month, and to top off it off, since 1994, there’s also now a World Vegan Day on Nov. 1.
While some research on vegetarianism can be questionable because of differing definitions — if researchers include lactovegetarians who eat dairy but not eggs or ovovegetarians who eat eggs but not dairy, that can skew numbers — generally, plant-based diets are on the rise. In the International Food Council’s 2019 Food & Health Survey, 75% of respondents indicated that they had heard of plant-based diets and nearly half said they would like to learn more about them.
But if you’re not totally ready to give up meat and/or cheese, plant-based diets are becoming more popular. Flexitarians eat predominantly plant-based foods with occasional meat, and pescatarians eat fish but not other meat. Sometimes people eat poultry but not red meat or only eat meat on special occasions or holidays.
Just be sure that if you do decide to go vegetarian, you keep track of nutrients that may be lacking from your diet, especially iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Vegans need a B12 supplement to stay healthy because B12 can only be found in animal products.
Here are three ways that eating a vegetarian or plant-based can help the environment.
Reduce greenhouse emissions
When cows burp, fart and poop, to be blunt, they release methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas, which, when released in the atmosphere, traps heat from the sun’s rays inside the ozone layer, causing temperatures to rise. So, combined, when many consumers stop eating red meat, the amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane decreases and this helps fight a leading cause of global warming.
There are several other natural sources of methane emissions, including bogs and wetlands, but National Geographic reports that natural methane emissions make up only 10% of the total emissions each year. The other 90% comes from human-related sources.
In the case of meat consumption, it takes a lot more energy and resources to transport and preserve things like beef, chicken and pork than it does to preserve plant proteins like beans, nuts and lentils. By switching to a plant-based diet, consumers reduce the resulting emissions, which brings us to the next point.
Reduce fossil fuel use
In order to refrigerate and transport all that meat, most of the big corporations rely on non-renewable fossil fuels for energy. To produce one kilo-calorie of beef, it takes 40 kcals of fossil fuel energy, according to data from a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
“The average fossil energy input for all the animal protein production systems studied is 25 kcal fossil energy input per 1 kcal of protein produced. This energy input is more than 11 times greater than that for grain protein production, which is about 2.2 kcal of fossil energy input per 1 kcal of plant protein produced,” researchers David and Marcia Pimentel found in the study.
Since fossil fuels are nonrenewable, by acting with your dollar and reducing or eliminating meat from your grocery bill, you can help reduce fossil fuel consumption.
For those not ready to give up meat entirely, sourcing it from local farms where production, energy and transportation costs are much lower, is a good way to help the environment without sacrificing your own food preferences.
Reduce water use
In the same study referenced above, the Pimentels found that it takes 100 times more water to produce 1 kilogram of animal protein than the same amount of grain protein. Not only do animals need to drink water, but the plants that the animals eat, like hay and grass, also require water. But grain proteins only need to be watered themselves.
National Geographic reported that by cutting the consumption of animal products in half, the U.S. could reduce water consumption by 37%. At the time of publication, the average American diet took 1,320 gallons of water to produce, meaning halving animal product consumption would mean diets only take 832 gallons to produce.