Going vegan 'single biggest way' to reduce your impact on Earth

If you really care about the planet, you’ll go vegan - at least according to one new study.

Dr Michael Mosley on the ethics of veganism - "It's very hard to justify eating other animals." Dr Michael Mosley says being vegan is the most ethical way to eat.

Ditching meat, eggs and cheese from your diet is the 'single biggest way' to reduce your impact on Earth, according to a report released on Friday. 

Oxford University scientists assessed the environmental impact of the world’s food and drink consumption and the damage farming does to the planet. The study, 'Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers', was published in the journal Science.

Researchers found that while the meat and dairy farming industries had a high impact on the environment, meat and dairy products provided only 18 per cent of calories and 37 per cent of the protein the world consumes.

New research says the vegan diet is the best in terms of environmental impact.
Source: Getty

Despite this, the report found the meat and dairy industries use up 83 per cent of the world’s farmland and are responsible for 60 per cent of the agriculture industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The report also found a population living in a plant-based world wouldn’t starve.

According to the research, without meat and dairy, global farmland would be cut down by more than 75 per cent. But reducing farmland by that much would not hinder the ability to feed the world’s population.

How do they know?

The study looked at the biggest data set ever analysed on the subject and hypothetically applied it to a 'vegan world'.

Led by Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore, it looked at 38,700 commercially viable farms in 119 countries. It also looked at the environmental footprint of 40 food products (from beef to tofu) which made up 90 per cent of the world’s protein and calorie consumption.

The study aimed to determine whether it was possible to produce animal products with a significantly lower impact on the environment or if the world was better off if everyone cut meat and dairy from their diets. 

Its goal was to better inform the world's food producers and their consumers on how they can reduce environmental impact, using data from 570 previously published papers on food life-cycle analyses.

Graffiti photographed during a May Day rally in Paris.
Source: AAP

'Better than buying an electric car'

The research found consumers going vegan would mean significant gains for the environment.

Mr Poore told The Guardian “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”

He said an individual consumer going vegan had a far bigger impact than cutting down on flights or buying an electric car, as those only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Today, and probably into the future, dietary change can deliver environmental benefits on a scale not achievable by producers,” the study concluded.

Would you give up meat and dairy if it meant you were helping the planet?
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Ok, so what can I do?

The study ultimately recommends a clearer understanding of the average product impact on the environment as well as consumers being proactive in enabling dietary change.

Consumers can play another important role by avoiding high-impact producers," it says.

“Though dietary change is realistic for any individual, widespread behavioural change will be hard to achieve in the narrow timeframe remaining to limit global warming and prevent further irreversible biodiversity loss.

“Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy," Mr Poore told The Guardian.

Dairy cattle have vacuum pumps attached to their udders during milking.
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Meat is money

While there has been a rise in veganism in Australia, it is undeniable that the meat and dairy industries are huge cash cows and sources of jobs. 

The 2017 Australian Red Meat and Livestock Industry report showed the country still has a huge appetite for pork (and beef, chicken and veal) on their forks, compared to other nations. 

In 2015, Australians consumed 111.4kg of meat (excluding seafood) per capita compared to global consumption of 34.1kg.

In 2015, Australia was also the largest exporter of beef and veal, and in 2015-16 Australia’s red meat and livestock industry turned over $62 billion. 

Mr Poore acknowledged that cutting the environmental impact of farming wouldn’t be an easy feat in Australia as it would have a significant impact on the global economy. It provided $18 billion towards the country’s GDP in 2015-16.

But he believed the billions of dollars spent across the world on “agricultural subsidies” (government handouts to support farmers) could be better spent: “There is a lot of money there to do something really good with,” he said.

A report by Australian Farmers in 2017 noted that of the OECD countries, Australian farmers received the second lowest levels of government subsidies in the developed world.

Can we have it all?

According to CSIRO researcher Mario Herrero, eating meat in Australia and a healthy planet can co-exist if farms make certain adaptations. 

In a 2016 piece for The Conversation, Herrero stated that livestock farming represents roughly 18 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions (about six billion tonnes per year).

His own research found that the global livestock sector can maintain its economic and social benefits while significantly reducing emissions. 

“It seems likely that emissions from livestock could be reduced by around 2.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year through technology and management,” he wrote.

“Achieving these savings will be dependent on improvements in feeding practices (better pastures, new types of food, more grains and others), improved ways of handling manure, and improved genetics and animal management,” admitting that the cost of achieving this was unknown.

While in theory, Herrero agreed that a vegan world would have the greatest impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he felt what works for one country wouldn’t necessarily work for another.

“In the developing world for instance, where lack of some nutrients and too many of others can occur at the same time, the problem is more complex. The question becomes about who keeps on eating and who should reduce consumption, and which products and where.”

Published 1 June 2018 at 6:50pm, updated 4 June 2018 at 3:18pm
By Natasha Christian