A plant-based diet is centred around eating foods that come from plants with few or no ingredients that come from animals. This includes vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits.
You’ve probably heard the statistic: If cows were a country, they'd be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitters. Raising livestock for meat, eggs, and milk is extremely energy-intensive. It also uses about 70% of agricultural land and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.
According to an Oxford University study, people who eat meat are responsible for almost twice as many dietary greenhouse-gas emissions per day as vegetarians and about 2.5 times as many emissions as vegans.
The study shows that people who eat more than 0.1 kg of meat per day—about the size of a deck of playing cards—generate 7.2 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) each day, while vegetarians and vegans generate 3.8 kg and 2.9 kg of CO2e.
So, this study shows that the emissions for meat-eaters are 50-54% higher than they are for vegetarians and 99-102% higher than for vegans.
In that case, could a global shift towards veganism be the answer to reducing our global carbon impact?
Many plant based foods also have a significant impact on the environment. So, it’s important to consider factors like food miles, production methods and waste as well:
In some instances, air-transported fruit and vegetables can create more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than poultry meat.
Asparagus eaten in the UK has the highest carbon footprint, with 5.3kg of carbon dioxide being produced for every kilogram of asparagus, because much of it is imported by air from Peru.
Some fruits and vegetables guzzle up gallons of water, for example, to grow a single avocado it has been estimated to take anything from 140 litres to 272 litres of water. In some areas, like Peru and Chile, the growing demand for the crop has led to illegal extraction from rivers and has been blamed for an increasing water-shortage crisis.
Together with the amount of waste, special storage conditions and packaging needed for avocados, this gives the fruit a hefty carbon footprint—the equivalent of 2.2kg of CO2/kg for avocados imported to the UK.
There are other things to consider, like artificial fertilisers that account for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and release nitrous oxide when used.
What is clear is that, on the whole, plant based foods can be better for the environment than livestock production. But, anyone looking to adopt a plant-based diet for environmental reasons may also want to consider the carbon footprint of plant-based foods, and take care when choosing what to replace meat with.
We know that tracking your dietary carbon impact is not easy, which is why we have developed an app to do the hard work for you. Download Cogo now to track your carbon footprint, and see how eating more plant-based foods affects your impact.
Or if you’re a business and want to help your customers reduce their carbon footprint, get in touch with our experts.
If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, the following articles and books are a good place to start: