Will Going Vegan Save the World?

Actually, we would all have to become vegans to save the earth

The leaves of the onions by the dried up stream were withered, the peppers hadn't sprouted in the first place, the millet drooped their heads. "Now we only have our goats and the camel," said the farmer in the Sahel region in West Africa to me and pointed to the dry bushes that still had leaves for his cattle.

It was all a long time ago, a meeting in the 1980s, when I was working as an agricultural advisor in Niger. But I had them right back in mind when a large study on the environmental effects of food hit the headlines: "Avoid meat and dairy products - this is the best single measure to reduce your impact on the planet," headlines the British daily The Guardian corresponding to the research results.

A better world without animal husbandry - I wonder what the Nigerien farmer would say about it? He probably wouldn't care, in the second poorest country in the world it's all about survival for a farmer. But the large-scale study by environmental researcher Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford and the agronomist Thomas Nemecek from the Agroscope research institute in Zurich paints a much bigger picture: 570 million farms around the world produce food to feed 7.6 billion people. The entire food supply chain causes around a quarter of human-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The study not only focuses on gases that are harmful to the climate, but also examines the impact of agriculture on land use, freshwater abstraction (weighted with local water scarcity), nutrient input into soils and bodies of water and their acidification.

The two scientists have now created the most comprehensive database to date on the environmental impacts of agriculture on food production. With the data of 38,700 profitable businesses in 119 countries as well as processors, packagers and retailers, they can draw up life cycle assessments for the 40 foods that make up 90 percent of all products consumed.

A key result that the researchers published in the science magazine "Science": 83 percent of the world's agricultural land is used for the production of meat, eggs, dairy products and for aquaculture (i.e. the breeding of fish and crabs, for example). And that causes up to 58 percent of emissions. So could a vegan food cycle protect our environment?

The two researchers admit that food producers are subject to certain constraints at the local level, i.e. that, as in the Sahel, for example, there is not enough rain to grow grain. But from a global perspective, the change in diet could bring environmental benefits. In the United States, for example, meat consumption per capita is three times the global average. According to the study, this has the potential to reduce the various environmental impacts of food by 61 to 73 percent.

We only need a quarter of our arable land for a vegan diet

Even the most sustainably produced meat and dairy products have a far worse environmental balance than plant-based foods. Head of research Poore explained that a plant-based diet not only lowers greenhouse gas emissions, it also reduces acidification of soils and water, as well as nutrient pollution. About a quarter less water is also needed. Perhaps most astonishing, however, is that 76 percent less arable land is required - that's about 3.1 billion hectares (one hectare is about the size of a soccer field). "That would relieve the world's tropical forests and give land back to nature."

In conversation with the Guardian added Poore that a vegan diet is probably the single best way for consumers to reduce their environmental impact on planet earth. The effect “is far greater than reducing the number of flights or buying an electric car”. Because that would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But the researchers are not dream dancers either. The study states, “While diet changes are realistic for everyone, widespread behavior change will be difficult to achieve in the tight timeframe that remains to limit global warming and prevent further, irreversible loss of biodiversity be."

But even if only that most polluting half If meat and milk production is replaced by plant-based foods, this still brings two thirds of all the benefits of abolishing all meat and milk production. According to the study, this can even save 73 percent of greenhouse gases. The reduction is 67 percent for land use, 64 percent for acidification and 55 percent for nutrient input.

The life cycle assessments also depend on the producer and the supply chain

The two researchers have also documented that there are large differences in the environmental impact of food, and not just depending on whether it is meat or plants, for example. The emissions also depend on the manufacturer, i.e. the way in which it is produced. What is meant by this, Poore explained in a much more understandable way than in the study on Deutschlandfunk, which was peppered with technical terms: “In the case of staple foods like rice, there were farmers who cause 500 percent more greenhouse gases than environmentally friendly farmers. A cup of coffee from one manufacturer only produced 80 grams of CO2, while another produced 1.3 kilograms. “However, consumers would have no chance of recognizing the less environmentally harmful variant on the shelf.

According to the study, one type of beer can also cause three times more emissions and use four times more land than another. And then there is - as with other foods - the influence of the supply chain: Reusable stainless steel kegs only generate 20 grams of CO2 equivalents (I explain what that is in the top right note) per liter of beer, recycling glass bottles up to 750 Grams and bottles disposed of in landfills even up to 2,500 grams.

CO2 equivalents are a unit of measurement that is used to standardize the climate impact of the various greenhouse gases. In addition to the most important man-made greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), there are other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. The various gases do not contribute to the greenhouse effect to the same extent and remain in the atmosphere for different lengths of time. Methane, for example, has a 28 times greater impact on the climate than CO2, but stays in the atmosphere for a shorter time.

Promote sustainable consumption with specific measures

So what to do The researchers have made it clear that a global change in our eating habits towards plant-based foods would be ideal. But they go one step further and have formulated measures with which politicians, producers and consumers could react to the findings of their study.

Here are the most important points of this integrated mitigation concept:

  • Manufacturers monitor their environmental impact with digital tools (such tools have already been integrated into farm software in the USA)

  • Policy makers set targets for environmental indicators (such as greenhouse gas emissions). Incentives offer credit or tax breaks. Or the agricultural subsidies, which are worth more than a trillion dollars worldwide, are reassigned.

  • The consumer receives information about all environmental impacts of the products: We need a new eco-label for this.

“We have to find ways to change the conditions slightly so that producers and consumers can act better in the interests of the environment,” says Poore. "Ecolabels and financial incentives would encourage more sustainable consumption."

And maybe, as his co-author Nemecek thinks, we simply have to tax environmentally harmful food more heavily or impose a levy on it. So simply: make it more expensive. Then consumers will definitely no longer buy them.


Editor: Alexander von Streit. Final editing: Rico Grimm. Photo editor: Martin Gommel (unsplash / Rob Bye).