How does becoming a vegetarian help the environment? Find out here
National Vegetarian Week is an annual campaign that aims to remind the world of the benefits of vegetarianism. While making the change to a plant-based diet can provide significant benefits to your physical health, this year’s event is focused on what vegetarianism can do for the environment.
By 2050, the global population is estimated to reach 9.7 billion. Without drastic action to use the planet’s natural resources more sustainably, we’ll need the equivalent of three Earths to support our increased population.
So, if you’re interested in helping the planet, eating less meat could be beneficial. If you would like some meal inspiration, you can find plenty of recipes on the official National Vegetarian Week website. For further motivation, here are five ways a new diet will help the environment.
1. Reduce carbon emissions
Livestock farming is one of the three greatest sources of carbon emissions. The process of getting meat from the farm to your plate – including the carbon footprint of raising the animals, transporting them, and cooking them – totals 26% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Switching to vegetarianism for a year would allow you to save the same amount of emissions as taking a small car off the road for six months. For many people, a car is a necessity, but you can still have a positive effect on the environment by changing what you eat.
2. Increase agricultural land
Nearly 30% of the available and suitable surface area of the planet is used up by livestock or growing food for those animals. Most of this land is used to raise cattle, as they take up more space than all other domesticated animals and crops combined.
Humans consume around 230 million tonnes of animals every year. This figure has doubled in the past 30 years. If you’re wondering how effective one person changing their diet would be, it’s estimated that one person in the UK eats around 80kg of meat every year.
As more people adapt their diets, that positive effect quickly adds up. A vegetarian diet needs 2.5 times less land to grow food compared to a meat-based diet, so if wide-scale change occurs through campaigns such as National Vegetarian Week, then the farmland can be reclaimed for other uses.
Additionally, livestock in the UK eat more than 50% of our wheat and 60% of barley. Research suggests that if the grain we feed to the animals in western countries was fed to humans instead, it could feed at least twice as many people as it does currently.
3. Prevent deforestation
More than 6 million hectares of forest land – that’s twice the size of Belgium – is converted to farmland every year. To meet the demand for animal products, important habitats are being destroyed to make room for crops to feed the livestock or grazing space.
Recent studies estimate that around 137 species of plants, animals, and insects become extinct every day due to deforestation. That adds up to a horrifying 50,000 species a year.
Choosing a vegetarian diet reduces the amount of livestock required, which means there’s no reason for more forests to be cut down. And as the amount of carbon in the atmosphere increases, we’ll need as many trees as possible to mitigate the effects of global warming.
4. Reduce pollution
A lesser-known fact about farming is the amount of pollution it causes. One cow excretes roughly 40kg of manure for every kilogram of edible beef. By itself, this may not seem like much, but on a farm with hundreds of cattle it can have drastic effects on the surrounding wildlife.
The cows’ waste is stored in huge waste lagoons, which can hold up to 40 million gallons of manure and urine. It’s not uncommon for these to overflow or break, which pollutes underground water supplies and rivers with chemicals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and nitrates.
In 1995, a pig farm in North Carolina showcased how much damage this pollution can do. A single spill of millions of gallons of this waste forced the closure of around 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands and killed around 10 million fish.
The WWF has declared that more than a third of the world’s 825 important “ecoregions” are under threat due to pollution from livestock farms.
5. Protect our oceans
This pollution is eventually swept from lakes and rivers into the sea, which can cause “dead zones”. These are areas where huge amounts of animal waste, sewage, and fertiliser cause algal blooms that then take up all the oxygen in the water, meaning little else can survive.
Nearly 400 of these dead zones have been identified across the world. They range in size from one square kilometre to 70,000 square kilometres, and can be found anywhere from the South China Sea to the Scandinavian fjords.
Switching to a vegetarian diet also means not eating fish, which will help to prevent overfishing.
85% of fisheries are overfished, which damages ecosystems and depletes fish stocks. Refusing to eat fish along with meat will allow our oceans to return to their natural balance, meaning that future generations will have the same abundance of fish that we are currently exploiting.
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