Dear Dot: Does Being Vegan or Vegetarian Help the Environment?

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Dear Dot,

How much does being a vegan or vegetarian help the environment? 

–Jessica

The Short Answer: Put simply, Jessica, veganism and vegetarianism offer a clear environmental advantage over meat consumption. 

Dear Jessica, 

Dot’s eldest daughter once had a friend who was a strident and self-described vegan — let’s call her Emily because that’s what her parents named her. Emily spent considerable time encouraging (some might use the term haranguing) anyone in her orbit to follow suit. 

Many years ago, Emily was a guest at our home for a holiday get-together and, of course, I took her loudly proclaimed veganism into account when I planned the menu because I’m a thoughtful Dot who respects others’ dietary restrictions and/or choices. Alongside foods that contained meat and dairy, I prepared a number of vegan dishes (delicious, btw) and a few desserts, again both vegan and non. 

Among those desserts was a salted caramel cheesecake. Dot is somewhat known for her cheesecakes and this one was a sight to behold — and devour. 

Which is what my daughter’s friend began to do. Horrified, I clarified: “Oh no, Emily, that has dairy. The chocolate cake, however, is completely vegan.” She smiled, wiping a smidge of cheesecake from her mouth. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “I’m not strictly vegan.” 

I share this story not to dunk on vegans (plenty of meat-eaters are annoying, too), but to make a larger point: Like Emily, I’m not a fan of rigid thinking — only this, absolutely not that — in pretty much any form because I think it can get in the way of us doing better. (Unlike Emily, however, I do consider it courteous to let your hostess know that you are, shall we say, flexible in your diet.) 

What we eat, however, is baked into our respective cultures. So it’s smart to recognize that shifting people away from animal foods that are part of celebrations, religious practices, the “feasting” that accompanies significant events requires sensitivity.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that our global (and growing!) appetite for meat is devouring large swaths of fertile land and valuable forests. The loss of those forests means more carbon in our atmosphere. More animals for meat means an increase of let’s call them gaseous bovines, which means more methane in our atmosphere — a daily release per animal on par with the amount of pollution released by a car in the same period of time. Estimates for the amount of greenhouse gas reduction if we cut meat from our diets ranges from 3 percent to 30 percent

It’s a wide range to be sure but cutting meat from our diets clearly has a positive impact related to carbon emissions. Factor in the benefits that grazing land could be offering environmentally if it was, say, a peat bog or a regenerative farm and the water used and polluted, and nobody is arguing that animals raised for meat are good for the planet.

And greenhouse gas emissions aren’t the only metric we need to consider when comparing a plant-based with a meat-based diet.

A study published in Nature states that “The global food system is a major driver of climate change, land-use change, and biodiversity loss, depletion of freshwater resources, and pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through nitrogen and phosphorus run-off from fertilizer and manure application.” 

According to Project Drawdown, which puts a “plant-rich diet” as #4 in its rankings of 80 ways to combat climate change, “Animal agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Favoring plant-based foods reduces demand, thereby reducing land clearing, fertilizer use, and greenhouse gas emissions.” Their data shows that, “If 50-75 percent of people adopt a healthy diet of an average 2,300 calories per day and reduce meat consumption overall, we estimate at least 54.19 to 78.48 gigatons of emissions could be avoided from dietary change alone.”

The Humane Society of United States put it this way in a Field Note for Bluedot Living, “There is an abundance of scientific findings that show replacing animal-sourced meats with plant-sourced foods provides more greenhouse gas savings than using lower-carbon animal meats. Beyond sustainability, there’s also a need to focus on plant-based foods to improve consumer health and to reduce the suffering of animals used for food.”

Put simply, Jessica, veganism, vegetarianism, and flexitarianism offer a clear environmental advantage over prioritized meat consumption. 

Of course, any consumption takes a toll on the planet so to further reduce any negative impact, vegans and vegetarians should minimize highly processed and/or packaged meat alternatives. 

While we wait (and wait) for policy to catch up to the value of a plant-based diet — by lowering subsidies for carbon-intensive foods and increasing incentives for lower-carbon foods, for instance — we can take steps ourselves.

Number one is, almost always, to vote for politicians at all levels of government that recognize the urgency of the climate crisis and have clear ideas for addressing it.

But the Drawdown folks remind us as well that the power to shift your diet is entirely yours, noting: “Few climate solutions of this magnitude lie in the hands of individuals or are as close as your dinner plate.”

Ready to moooo-ve meat aside, Jessica? To address your beef with beef? To no longer chicken out about adding more plants to your plate? To pig out on plants, as it were?

Here are some Dot- and Drawdown-approved suggestions:

  • Ease into it. Give Meatless Monday a try (or any other alliterative approach, such as Tofu Tuesday, Fish Friday, Salad Saturday, you get the idea!). Bluedot has lots of plant-based recipes, and there are loads of online cooks offering great recipes, too.
  • Reframe meat as a delicacy. Our consumption of meat and meat products is not only tough on the planet’s health, it can be tough on our personal health. If you’re not ready to give it up entirely, consider that most health experts suggest a serving no bigger than a deck of cards. That leaves loads of room on your plate for other goodies.
  • Give meat substitutes a try. It can be hard to give up something without an appealing alternative. But “meat substitutes made from plants are a key way to minimize disruption of established ways of cooking and eating, mimicking the flavor, texture, and aroma of animal protein and even replicating its amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, and trace minerals,” Project Drawdown researchers tell us. And with lots of moooo-lah going into research and development of these alternatives, you’ve got plenty to pick from.

I applaud Emily for her commitment to a plant-rich diet and also her flexibility in the face of tempting cheesecake. May we all embrace Emily’s approach, alongside the understanding that an impactful solution to our climate crisis can, literally, be in our hands. 

Perennially,

Dot

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