5 Ways a Plant-Based Diet Benefits the Environment

I gave up meat the day before Thanksgiving in 2019 after watching Game Changers on Netflix, and then I transitioned to a fully vegan diet a few short months later. The changes my partner Ryan (who is Type 1 Diabetic) and I have experienced with a plant-based lifestyle so far have been overwhelmingly positive. It has ignited a new fire in me to share my journey and start conversations with those of you in the Bearfoot Theory community who are curious about a plant-based lifestyle and the environmental benefits of going vegan.

Prior to going plant-based, I was feeling hopeless for the future of our planet. I also felt helpless. I had cut out single-use plastics, started taking fewer showers, and signed petitions. I also tried to have meaningful conversations with (climate) skeptical families members, but none of these actions felt like they could possibly make a difference when the challenge ahead of us is so big and the political will is lacking.

Since adopting a vegan diet, my entire mindset has changed. In current times when so much feels out of my control, taking full responsibility for my dietary choices and the impact on my health and the environment has left me feeling empowered. I am healthier and much happier knowing that I’m actively choosing a compassionate lifestyle that reduces my environmental impact.

I’ve become so passionate about this lifestyle that I’ve enrolled in eCornell’s Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate program, so I can learn how to effectively communicate the science behind a plant-based diet and its benefits to our health and the environment. I’m also working to transition away from recommending animal-based outdoor gear on the blog for the same reason.

Before you transition to a plant-based lifestyle, the most important factor in your success will be getting clear on your “why.” Why do you want to go vegan? What is motivating your decision?

If you care about the future of the planet, the environmental benefits of a plant-based or vegan diet compared to the traditional American diet that relies heavily on factory-farmed meat couldn’t be more clear. In this blog post, I share how a vegan diet can help save the planet. My hope is these facts help you find your why, so you can be confident in your decision to change what’s on your plate.

Learn about the environmental benefits of a vegan diet and how a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do to help save the planet!


How Does a Vegan Diet Benefit the Environment?

1. A Vegan Diet Helps Reverse Climate Change

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) from the livestock supply chain make up 14.5% of total human GHG emissions!¹ That’s more than total global emissions from cars, trains, planes, and boats combined.²

Scientists are clear. We have limited time to act to reverse climate change, and adopting a plant-based lifestyle is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Manure contains methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change

2. A Vegan Diet Saves Water

On average, one pound of beef takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce!³ To compare, the average 8-minute shower in America uses up 20 gallons.⁴ That means showering 90 times consumes the same amount of water as eating 1 pound of beef.

Even more shocking, worldwide consumption of meat and animal products is responsible for 27% of global water usage.

Producing feed for livestock requires an enormous amount of water

Switching to a vegetarian diet can reduce your water footprint by 35% and going full vegan could reduce your water footprint by as much as 60%.⁵

3. A Vegan Diet Supports Healthier Rivers and Lakes

According to the EPA, 46% of the rivers and streams in the United States are in biologically poor condition due to excessive nutrient pollution that runs off of cornfields grown for livestock feed, as well as from livestock excrement.⁶

When these nutrients end up in our waterways, they cause excess algae to grow. The algae sucks up all of the oxygen in the water, killing fish and other native plants and animals. Maybe you’ve heard of the giant Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico? This is a direct result of fertilizer runoff.⁷   

Dead fish in waters polluted with excess nutrients

Adopting a plant-based diet won’t completely eliminate fertilizer usage, but it can drastically reduce it. A 2014 study found that producing 1 kg of protein from kidney beans requires 12x less fertilizer and 10x less pesticides than producing 1 kg of beef.⁸ Also, if you buy organic produce, organic farms do not use synthetic fertilizers or chemicals, which further reduces your fertilizer use.

4. A Vegan Diet Can Help Save the Rainforests

Estimates suggest that over 20% of the Amazon has been destroyed, and 80% of the deforestation in recent years has occurred to make room for more cattle ranching. Brazil is currently the largest beef producer in the world, with the US importing $295 million of Brazilian beef in 2017.⁹

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “deforestation caused by cattle ranching is responsible for the release of 340 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, equivalent to 3.4% of current global emissions.”¹⁰ Further, the destruction of the Amazon is changing water cycles, altering temperatures, and will have devastating implications for the future of our planet, not to mention its effects on biodiversity and native wildlife.¹¹

Even if your beef isn’t coming from Brazil, these trends are worrying, and choosing a plant-based lifestyle is a way to take a stand against this destruction.

Trees cut and burned on an illegal dirt road to open land for agriculture and livestock in the Jamanxim National Forest, Para, Brazil

5. A Vegan Diet Reduces Pressure on Our Overfished Oceans

One-third of global fish stocks are overfished, and 90% are considered fully fished, which means any additional fishing pressure will cause population decline.

Another staggering statistic is that Pacific bluefin tuna, which is served in nearly all upscale sushi restaurants, has declined by 97%. Only 3% of its population is left and if current trends continue, one of the most majestic fish in our oceans will go extinct.¹²  

Bluefin tuna harvest
Slices of raw bluefin tuna sashimi

In my former career, I worked to promote sustainable seafood policies, but now, I’m convinced that there really is no such thing. In addition to overfishing, industrial fishing methods kill a huge amount of bycatch, which are unwanted species including turtles and sharks, that just get tossed back dead.¹³  

Bycatch from a bottom trawler. All this fish just goes to waste.

Now you might ask, what about farmed fish. Unfortunately, aquaculture has its own host of problems. Just to name a few… Farmed salmon relies on wild-caught sardines and anchovies for feed, which in the long-term is unsustainable. In addition, large scale salmon farms result in pollution and can transmit diseases to wild fish populations. 

I could write an entire blog post on this topic, but for now, I’ll say that people adopting a plant-based lifestyle and saying no to seafood is the only chance our oceans will have to recover. Going vegan for the environment includes our precious oceans as well.


Our Food Choices Matter!

Whether you are considering going vegan or not, I hope this blog post provided insight as to how your food choices affect the planet and showed you how much they matter. For those of you who are interested in making the transition to a plant-based lifestyle, these facts should provide some motivation for your decision and help you move forward with conviction. Going vegan for the environment is one of the best things we can do to help protect our planet.

If you have questions or comments about vegan environmental benefits, please leave them in the comments below. 


Footnotes:
¹ Tackling Climate Change through Livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation Opportunities
² EPA Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data
³ A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products
Harvard University: 4 Ways to Measure a 5 Minute Shower
The hidden water resource use behind meat and dairy
National Water Quality Inventory: Report to Congress
NOAA forecasts very large ‘dead zone’ for Gulf of Mexico
The Environmental Cost of Protein Food Choices
How beef demand is accelerating Amazons deforestation climate peril
¹⁰ The hidden costs of burgers
¹¹ Amazon Watch: What Happens When the Forest Disappears?
¹² The sea is running out of fish, despite nations’ pledges to stop it
¹³ Wasted Catch: Unsolved Problems In U.S. Fisheries

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

4 comments on “5 Ways a Plant-Based Diet Benefits the Environment

  1. Thank you, Kristen! Longtime vegan and (very) part-time vanlifer here. Glad you are sharing this with your audience.

  2. Thanks for sharing this journey. This is something that is always lingering in my mind but so hard for me to take the plunge on.

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