In recent years health enthusiasts, medical experts, foodies, environmentalists, influencers, celebrities, and everyone in between have been talking about the benefits of a plant-based diet, both on individual health and the environment.
“A plant-based diet is better for the planet,” they said. While they aren’t entirely wrong, plant-forward foods aren’t better for the longevity of the environment. In many ways, a plant-based diet is far superior in protecting Earth and all living creatures on this planet. But it’s also incredibly essential that we don’t overlook the fact that many aspects of a plant-based diet can also cause harm to the Earth.
That’s right; even plant-based foods can actually do damage to the environment from which those plants came.
It’s important to clear up any misconceptions so that everyone knows the impact the foods they eat (or don’t eat) might have on the future of our planet. So, let’s dig in.
A Plant-Based Diet, Defined
First of all, let’s talk about what it even means to stick to a plant-based diet. As indicated by the name, a plant-based diet means you stick to foods primarily from plants, including fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans.
A plant-based diet is not the same as a vegan diet, which avoids all meat and dairy products or animal byproducts. Think of it this way: plant-based diets suggest minimizing your meat, seafood, and dairy products intake, while vegan diets completely eliminate those foods.
Veganism began back in the 1940s when people adopted a diet that excluded all animal-derived foods (including eggs, meat, fish, poultry, cheese, etc.) for ethical reasons surrounding animal welfare. That movement evolved over time and is also now based on environmental and health concerns. Plant-based diets, which grew in popularity several years later, in the 1980s, share those environmental concerns but do not entirely exclude animal-derived products.
The plant-based diet trend is certainly on the rise, which might explain why everyone you know seems to be embracing plant-heavy diets and alternative sources of protein in their meal planning.
According to a 2018 report, more than 30 percent of Americans now incorporate meat-free days into their diets, and about 83 percent of American adults are adding more plant-based foods to their diets. The hashtag #meatlessmonday is trending with nearly 1 million posts on Instagram alone, and there are countless plant-based blogs to choose from. The question is not so much a matter of how popular plant-based diets are, but rather a matter of asking: are they actually as beneficial as people think?
The Impact of Plant-Based Diets and Veganism on the Environment
Several motivations for practicing a plant-based diet are personal health, weight loss, longevity, and even environmental concerns. While all those reasons are valid, and people have a right to choose their own dietary habits, it’s important to note that the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet aren’t as straightforward as they might seem.
First, let’s talk about the positive impact of a plant-based diet on the planet because there are certainly several pros to cutting out meat. A report published in The Lancet found that if people across the planet followed a plant-based diet, it would save not only 10 million lives, preventing 20 percent of adult deaths each year, but also save the planet.
“We [asked], ‘What kind of diet do we need to optimize human health?’ and, ‘What are the limits that the earth can actually tolerate?” Dr. Brent Loken, co-author of the report and a conservation scientist, told ABC News. And based on their findings, they concluded that “it’s possible to feed every single person, not just calories, but a healthy diet,” without harming the environment, Loken said.
Furthermore, the impact on the environment is beneficial as well. Consider the amount of energy and resources it takes to make a single hamburger. A study found that one burger required about 14.6 gallons of water, 13.5 pounds of feed, and 64.5 square feet of land to produce. And the process of producing that burger also releases about 0.13 pounds of methane and 4 pounds of carbon dioxide into the environment. The impact of producing broccoli? About 13 times LESS than beef, according to The Environmental Working Group.
Another study, published in the journal Science, evaluated data from nearly 40,000 farms across the world and found that a plant-based or vegan diet also has the potential to greatly benefit the planet. “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,” said Joseph Poore at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as those green habits only cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Plant-Based Foods Aren’t as Environmentally Friendly as You Might Think
While plenty of data supports that a plant-based diet is good for the environment and simultaneously good for your health, experts point out that it might not be quite as environmentally friendly as you think.
It’s hard to imagine that fresh fruits and vegetables grown in nature could in any way harm the environment, but that’s exactly what recent research is indicating. While the environmental impact of a plant-based diet is not nearly as damaging as meat production might be, it’s also not without its dangers.
“Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy — these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment… but it’s essential to be mindful about everything we consume: air-transported fruit and veg can create more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than poultry meat, for example,” explains Joseph Poore.
Consider the negative impact of fertilizers — artificial fertilizers account for at least 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into the atmosphere. Using these products on fields also releases nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
In addition to the chemicals used with fertilizers, farming practices can also do damage to the environment. Practices such as the tilling of fields release large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and cause accelerated land erosion.
Similarly, some foods are worse than others in terms of damage to the environment. Avocados (we know, for avocado toast lovers, this news is devastating) are a big culprit in terms of harmful impact on the planet. Increased consumption in recent years combined with single-crop farming has led to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Avocados are also known to be a drain on the water supply. Almonds and soy, two main plant-based protein sources, also require massive land conversions to grow crops and huge water supplies just to grow a single nut.
The bottom line here is not that a plant-based diet is bad. We’re all for a plant-based living if that’s what works for you. But, it’s not a perfect diet, and it’s not without its fair share of harm to the planet. Some argue that what is more important is to focus on production over products if you want to truly support a sustainable diet.
“Environmental sustainability depends on where the production takes place and what the critical environmental issues are in that region,” explains Dr. Hanna Tuomisto, professor of sustainable food systems, told the Harvard Political Review. She argues that you must look at the local ecosystem, and only then can you assess what a truly sustainable diet looks like.
Remember that the product needs to be transported and therefore requires a great deal of energy. And even plant-based foods and meat alternatives are extremely processed. Though they might not come with the same environmental consequences as meat, plant-based products can still be problematic in terms of deforestation, habit destruction, and carbon emissions during transportation and processing.