Although evidence suggests that some humans avoided animal products for ethical reasons as early as 877 BCE, veganism is a relatively modern development. In the UK, the movement has quadrupled in size between 2014 and 2019. Why? Well, it could be due to activists consistently promoting the diet as one of the simplest ways of dealing with the climate crisis.
There’s no avoiding the fact that unsustainable consumption of meat and dairy globally is fuelling the climate crisis. Our food systems account for roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Within these emissions, the production of meat, farmed fish, dairy and eggs are by far the most environmentally damaging processes. For many, this prompts an obvious question: can adopting a vegan diet save us from impending climate disasters?
Veganism can help shield us from a disaster scenario in several ways. It reduces the mass deforestation required to clear land for animals and as well as the volume of greenhouse gases we produce. But drastically reducing dairy and meat production can’t be the only element of the climate crisis we tackle, as energy use is responsible for the other three-quarters of global gas emissions. Plus, if the whole world went vegan tomorrow, that wouldn’t guarantee that the food and agriculture sector would suddenly address damaging practices, such as monoculture farming (where large areas of land are cultivated with a single crop), the use of toxic chemicals (fertilisers and pesticides) and food waste.
It’s important to get clued up on exactly why excessive meat and dairy farming (especially battery farming) is harmful. The production of meat and dairy uses most of the world’s farmland (83 per cent) and is responsible for 60 per cent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Farmed animal products are also responsible for 56 per cent of air pollution, 57 per cent of water pollution and 33 per cent of freshwater withdrawals within the sector. In other words, it’s highly unsustainable, particularly since meat and dairy make up just 18 per cent of the calories and 37 per cent of the protein in our diets.
The issue also lies in continued habitat destruction within agricultural practices. Put simply, we’re chopping down a fuck load of trees and destroying dense areas of biodiversity, which could absorb the carbon we keep putting into the atmosphere, all to make space for growing food. The loss of these wild areas to agriculture could lead to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event.
Currently, agriculture uses half of the world’s habitable land. In the Amazon, this kind of deforestation causes the release of 340 million tonnes of carbon each year, which is roughly equivalent to 3.4 per cent of current global emissions. Yet, if we were to stop all meat and dairy production and consumption, research shows that global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75 per cent and still get everyone fed.
However, the answer isn’t just to halt the consumption or production of all meat and dairy products to make space for intensively farmed monocultures filled with maise or soya. These, too, are harmful to the Earth’s soil. Monocultures don’t stay in the soil long enough to lock in carbon and require frequent tilling (ploughing land to prepare for the growing of crops), and pesticide and chemical fertiliser use, meaning crucial nutrients and organisms that generally keep the soil healthy are killed. The soil becomes desertified in a short number of years. Healthy soil is not only necessary for locking in carbon; we also need it to grow plants. Chemical fertiliser use is also one of the leading sources of eutrophication, with fertiliser run-off making entire bodies of water uninhabitable.
Unless there is a focus on making farming practices more sustainable and holistic, we’ll still be wrecking the environment whether we use farmland for meat and dairy or monocultures, just at different paces. Some ecologists even argue that, when managed correctly, grazing animals, like cows and sheep, can also be beneficial in conserving soil – another reason they shouldn’t be locked up in battery farms.
So now that we’re at the end of Veganuary, you might be wondering whether you should stick with veganism for the planet’s sake. The answer? Do it – as much as you can, anyway.
But remember that veganism or a reduction of dairy and meat production alone can’t be the endpoint; it’s part of the bigger environmental picture. The climate crisis is a multifaceted issue. Even if the entire world went vegan today, this wouldn’t necessarily guarantee the end of harmful agricultural practices, soil restoration or the conservation of the world’s biodiversity. That being said, it would still be one hell of a leap forward from where we are now.