As well as reducing demand for cruelly produced animal products and improving your health, going vegan helps to tackle some of the biggest environmental and humanitarian issues the world faces – water shortages, desertification, feeding a growing human population, land and water pollution and, of course, climate change. According to the United Nations, for example, animal farming is responsible for at least 14.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all of the planes, cars, buses, ships and other motorised transport on Earth combined.
A study conducted in 2014 by scientists at the University of Oxford similarly concluded that animal products are having a huge impact on climate change. By analysing the diet of tens of thousands of British people, it found that meat-based diets are responsible for around twice the greenhouse gas emissions of vegan diets.
So by going vegan, you’ve managed to slash your ‘carbon footprint’! But what about your ‘water footprint’? Well, given all the water required to produce feed for farmed animals, not to mention all the drinking water they need, it’s no surprise that it requires a lot more water to produce meat, milk and eggs than their vegan counterparts. For example, it takes half the amount of water to make a pint of soya milk as it does to produce a pint of cow’s milk. And you can get six tofu-based burgers for the amount of water it takes to produce just one beef burger.
This is especially important as climate change causes drought to become a growing problem across the world. Over the last few years, for example, California has experienced a crippling drought. Almond production, which uses ten per cent of the state’s water, has come under particular attack, but it is often overlooked that animal agriculture in California uses around five times as much water whilst providing far less nutrition per drop.
But animal farming doesn’t just use fresh water, it pollutes it too. According to the Environment Agency, it is the single biggest cause of water pollution in the UK, with dairy farms being a particular problem, and other countries around the world have reported similar findings. The trouble is that farming huge numbers of animals means they produce lots of waste (see right), and that slurry can end up in rivers and streams where it kills wildlife and has the potential to spread disease.
I’ve been told many times that vegans are destroying the rainforest because it is being chopped down to grow soya plantations. But whilst it’s true that large areas of former Amazon rainforest are now being used to grow soya, more than 95 per cent of it is used to produce feed for farmed animals, particularly in North America and Europe. Besides, most deforested land in South America – around 70 per cent, in fact – is now used to graze cattle and other animals reared for meat.
As we try to feed a growing global population, it is becoming increasingly clear that doing so will have to involve a shift away from animal farming towards plant-based foods. At present around a third of edible crops are being fed to farmed animals, instead of the millions of starving humans around the world. And the nutrition we get from the meat, eggs and milk from those animals is far less than we would have got from the crops fed to them. Animals use up calories and other nutrients as they move around and do the other things animals do, so they are a very inefficient way of producing food. Globally, animal farming takes up almost 80 per cent of farmland, and yet animal products provide just 30 per cent of our protein and 20 per cent of our calories. Whereas crops, produced on a fifth as much land, provide more than half of our protein and calories.
Put simply, we can feed far more people on a plant-based diet, cause far less pollution and use far less land and water.