If you’re looking for an easy way to help the planet, then we’ve got just the thing – make the switch to a plant-based diet! Veganism is no longer just for hardcore hippies, living off lentils and mushrooms. It’s now recognised as being one of the most significant individual actions we can take to help tackle the climate crisis, as well as being good for our own health, and of course a win for animal welfare. 

In its 2006 report “Livestock’s long shadow”, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described livestock farming as: 

…one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.

If that’s not enough to convince you, we’ve taken a curious look at some of the facts and stats. Read on to find out about the massive impact of animal agriculture, and why going vegan is such a powerful act. Be warned: what you’re about to read could blow your mind.

Reducing emissions

Research has found that our current food system is responsible for around 13.7 billion tonnes of CO2e every year. That’s more than 25% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, including 37% of all methane and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions. Of this, over 30% is caused directly by livestock farming and fisheries.

In its “Special report on climate change and land” the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) calculated that a global move to a vegan diet could save almost 8 billion tonnes of CO2e a year by 2050. 

Slowing deforestation – and saving the Amazon!

Half of all the habitable land on the planet, an area of 48 million square kilometres, is used for agriculture. A staggering 77% of this, equivalent to an area the size of the Americas, is used for animal-based products. 

Intensive agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation. 5 million hectares of forest (95% of which is richly biodiverse tropical forest) are destroyed every year, and it is estimated that at least three quarters of this is for agriculture. Beef is the biggest culprit, responsible for the destruction of 2.1 million hectares a year. That’s the equivalent of half of the Netherlands being turned into land for cattle production. Every. Single. Year. The Amazon suffers most, where over 80% of deforested land is used for cattle grazing. 

Tropical deforestation releases 2.6 billion (2.6 Gigatonnes) of CO2 every year. That’s more than 5 times the annual emissions of the UK. Research found that, at an individual level, deforestation alone is responsible for around 15% of the carbon footprint of the ‘average’ EU diet

Eating beef raised on grain produced in the Amazon is like coal-fuelled power plants – the worst thing you could possibly do.

Prof Walter Willett, a leading nutritionist at Harvard University, via Carbon Brief.

Saving water

Agriculture is a thirsty business, using around 70% of our total global freshwater supply. The WWF Living Planet Report 2008 found that 23% of this is used just for livestock production, despite animal products only providing 8.7% of our calories.

In fact, globally, animal agriculture uses the equivalent of 1,150 litres of water per person per day – to use the same amount you’d have to take a 90 minute long shower

Producing just 1 kg of beef (that’s about 11 big macs) uses over 15,000 litres of water. It would take the average person 20 years to drink that much! Meanwhile, 1 kg of vegetables requires just 322 litres and cereals only need 1,644 litres per kg, which makes them the most efficient in terms of water use per calorie. 

Research has found that a vegetarian or vegan diet can have a water footprint 35% to 55% lower than an average European diet. 

Cleaning up our land, air, and water 

Crop production uses large quantities of pesticides, and nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers. Monocultures such as soya (90% of which is used as animal feed) are responsible for a 170% increase in pesticide use in Brazil and Argentina. Fertiliser use has increased tenfold in the past 70 years. 

Unfortunately these chemicals are released into the land, air, and water during use. Nitrogen is particularly problematic, as it can change its form – from ammonia polluting the air, to nitrates in our water, and finally to nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. 

Nitrogen and phosphorus are also found in animal waste, which is created in huge quantities by factory farming. In the US alone, livestock produce nearly 1.4 billion tons of manure every year. This is often incorrectly handled or stored, causing pollutants to leach into soil and water. 

Agricultural pollution is now estimated to be the major factor in the degradation of water. Nitrogen and phosphorus cause eutrophication (oxygen depletion) of rivers and lakes, creating effective dead zones where aquatic life cannot survive. 

Agriculture is also the biggest cause of air pollution in Europe, in particular contributing 95% of all ammonia emissions.

Let nature and biodiversity thrive

Food production is responsible for around 70% of biodiversity loss, due to land-use change, destruction of ecosystems, and overfishing. 

The WWF 2020 Living Planet report showed an average 68% drop in wildlife populations between 1970 and 2016. 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction and the IUCN Red List assessment has identified agriculture as the most frequent threat to plants.

The vast quantities of animals raised for slaughter in industrial agriculture means that farmed animals now outweigh wildlife by a factor of 15-1. Livestock accounts for about 60% of mammal biomass. The remaining 40% is mostly humans, with wild mammals only 4%. Fish biomass has decreased by 15%, and over a third of all global fish stocks are overfished

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that a shift towards more sustainable diets could save several million square kilometres of land globally, which could be used for carbon sequestration and nature restoration. The UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) calculated that over 3 million hectares (that’s bigger than Wales!) could be freed up in the UK by 2035. 

OK so it’s great for the planet, what about us and the animals?

It goes without saying that a vegan diet is better for animal welfare. Worldwide, over 90 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for food each year; two thirds of these are factory farmed, kept in terrible conditions and treated with intolerable cruelty.

It’s also better for our own health. Research has shown a vegan diet reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. Veganism could also help address global food inequality. A third of the world’s population doesn’t have access to adequate food and although we produce enough food for 10 billion people, livestock farming is incredibly wasteful. 

Can one person really make a difference?

Yes! A big one! The carbon footprint of plant-based foods can be anywhere between 10 and 50 times smaller than animal products. For example, producing 1 kg of beef creates 99 kg of CO2e, while producing 1 kg of tofu creates just 3.2 kg – that’s a massive 97% reduction!

In a year, if you

  • Skipped one beef burger a week, you’d save 604 kg of CO2, the same as a return flight from London to Malaga.
  • Cut out cheese just once or twice a week, you’d save as much as heating an average home for 11 days, and enough water for 272 showers!
  • Swapped from dairy milk to plant-based milk, you’d save 178 kg CO2, the equivalent of driving 450 miles. 

Making switches like this towards a more sustainable diet (not even fully vegan!) could reduce emissions by 36%, reduce land use by 75% (from 4 billion to 1 billion hectares), and reduce biodiversity loss by 20%. That’s a pretty good reason to add oat milk to your shopping list! 

Be curious!