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Diet's foodprint

diet and environment

Diet's foodprint: Meat and dairy products are significantly more resource intensive (in terms of carbon emissions, water, land and grain usage) than plant based food products. Reducing your consumption of meat and dairy products in favor of plant based foods is the single largest individual step that can be taken towards reducing your carbon, water and land foodprints and helping reduce global hunger. 

Livestock's environment foodprint

As the world population continues to grow (crossing 7bn people in 2011), the strain on natural resources keeps increasing. While many people have started taking initiatives to reduce their environmental footprint, the most far reaching solution to critical environmental challenges is often overlooked.

Environmental foodprint of livestock industry

Unknown to most, the livestock industry is the single largest contributor to all our worst environmental issues. As per the United Nations1, the livestock industry is responsible for:

Carbon emissions: the single largest contributor to carbon emissions globally – contributing 38% more emissions than the energy industry, 28% more than transportation and 12.5% more than the industrial sector.

Land: the single largest user of global land resources – using up 70% of global agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet

Water: the single largest user of our freshwater resources – consuming 36% of global usable fresh water resources and accounting for 8% of global human water usage.

Deforestation: the single largest cause of deforestation globally. It is estimated that land cleared for pastures accounts for 70% of the deforestation in the amazon, with land cleared for animal feedstock production accounting for the bulk of the rest.

Pollution (land & water): one of the leading causes of pollution globally, accounting for a disproportionate share of the degradation and pollution of our precious land and freshwater resources.

Hunger: possibly the leading cause of food shortage and hunger globally. Every year 760 mn tons of grains are fed to animals instead of humans – accounting for 36% of all grain produced globally. 

Lower your enviromental foodprints

Meat & dairy products are much more resource intensive at every level, as compared to plant based foods. Even small shifts in dietary patterns towards a vegetarian / vegan diet (such as giving up meat one day a week, reducing proportion of meat & dairy products in diet or ideally shifting completely to a vegetarian / vegan diet) can have large positive implications for reductions in carbon emissions, as well freeing up significant land, water & grain resources.

Diet and our carbon foodprint

While most fruits & vegetables have a footprint of less than 0.5 kg of CO2, animal products have a footprint ranging from 2-16 kg of CO2 (anywhere between 4 – 50 x the emissions per kg of product).

Carbon foodprint of common food items

The production of meat & dairy products result in significantly more emissions of harmful greenhouse gases, than plant based foods. (Data source: Clean Metrics)

Diet and our water foodprint

In 2008, leading global water institutions & scientists got together to form the Water Footprint Network – a globally coordinated effort aimed at calculating the water footprint of various products consumed by humans, to get a better sense on virtual water trade and to help form policies around the same. The water footprint network, has established what is arguably one of the most in depth and authenticated database of water footprints of various products. As the chart below shows, while most plant based foods have a water footprint of between 200 – 800 ltrs / kg, animal products have a water footprint of between 3000 – 15000 ltrs / kg. 

Water foodprint of common food items

Meat & dairy products are significantly more water intensive than plant based foods. With 92% of our water consumption linked to food, a shift to a vegan diet is the single largest personal lifestyle change that can help protect global water resources. (Source: waterfootprint.org)

Diet and our world hunger foodprint

Unfortunately, no global organisation has calculated the land footprint of specific foods, similar to the carbon & water footprints mentioned above. However, enough research is available that has examined the very poor conversion of plant based proteins into animal proteins. Rejinders & Soret, have calculated that on average it takes 10 kg of vegetable protein to generate 1kg of animal proteins. As much as 70% of all agricultural land is consumed for feedstock production of the livestock industry (a process which is only 10% as efficient as directly using this land to grow plant based proteins for human and not animal consumption).

What is the world turned vegan by 2050?

The United Nations Environment Program, released a report ‘Environment & Food Crisis’, in which they calculated the loss of grains & energy due to the inefficient process of eating proteins indirectly through animals, as compared to direct consumption of plant based proteins. They concluded that in 2050, ''taking the energy value of the meat produced into consideration, the loss of calories by feeding the cereals to animals instead of using the cereals directly as human food represents the annual calorie need for more than 3.5 billion people"

To understand this number better, a global shift to a vegan diet by 2050 would free up enough grains to:

  • take care of all population growth from 2011 to 2050 (i.e. 2 bn people)
  • feed every person hungry today (i.e. 870 mn people)
  • and still have enough grains for another 630 mn people

Dietary solutions to environmental problems

Our diet choices provide possibly the single largest solution to all our worst environmental problems. Learn simple dietary changes that can help you significantly reduce your environmental footprint.

Dietary solutions to our worst environmental problems

Reducing meat and dairy consumption: Based on personal choices with relation to desired environmental impact – a person could look at replacing one meal in 3 / 4 / 5 with a vegetarian option. Similar to all conservation initiatives, the more meat & dairy we reduce, the greater is the positive impact on our planet.

Vegan lifestyle: Ultimately, when it comes to reducing your environmental footprint, there is no greater initiative that can be taken than a complete shift to a vegan diet (a diet that includes no meat & diary products). Apart from the environmental impact, this is also possibly the single most important change an individual can make to help reduce animal suffering around the world and to improve their own health.

Innovative Foods: 2 major forms of innovative food technologies are taking off which have the potential to completely replace meat & dairy products, without consumers having to make any substantial changes in lifestyle. The first (in more advanced stages) is a rapidly increasing vegetarian meat industry - companies that have started to create dishes that taste & feel similar to meat, but are purely plant based. The second (in earlier stages of development) is the potential to make lab grown meat. The potential of this industry is so high and the issues involved are so critical, that it has attracted investments from the founders of Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Pay Pal.