Switching to an electric car, collecting waste separately, reducing the number of flights, eating local food – many of us are probably asking ourselves how we can do the most to protect the environment, reduce our personal environmental footprint, and what we should pay attention to.
According to Joseph Poore, researcher at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Food Sustainability Analytics, the biggest positive change could be achieved by eliminating animal-based foods (mainly meat, milk and eggs), as that would be a way to reduce not only carbon emission, but also acidification, eutrophication (growth of algae in natural water) and the use of land and 1
35% of greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food production,2e.g., trees, shrubs) capable of capturing carbon dioxide will develop (or can be planted) on the land released, further reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In addition, food production is the primary cause of eutrophication and contributes significantly to the acidification of the environment, with consequent impacts on biodiversity and the resilience of the 3
In terms of land use, the impact of animal-based products is particularly significant, as 83% of the world’s farmland is used for the production of meat, aquaculture, eggs and dairy products, while these products account for only 18% of the energy (calories) consumed. The reason for this significant difference is that the production of animal-based products requires significant quantities of grain and 4 (mainly soy and maize), which require very large areas of land to grow. As an example, a cow with high milk production consumes 50-55 kg of feed and 200 litres of water a day to produce about 65 litres of milk. This means that about 800 g of f5 is needed to produce one litre of cow’s milk.
By contrast, the production of one litre of soy drink with a similar protein content (and which is cholesterol-free and low in saturated fats) requires only 80-120 g of soy. To calculate the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions, it should also be taken into account that cows emit significant amounts of methane during digestion, which, of course, does not happen in the case of the soy drink. For similar reasons, the environmental footprint of margarines and plant-based butter alternatives can be up to 72% smaller than that of butter made from cow’s milk6
Peter Singer, one of the world’s most influential living moral philosopher, in the introduction of his book 7titled ‘Why vegan? Eating Ethically’ (Liveright Publishing, New York, 2020), lists four arguments in favour of a vegan lifestyle: it is ethical in relation to all sentient beings on earth, including humans and non-human animals; it is more sustainable; in some cases it is healthier, or at least not unhealthier than eating animal-based products; and it significantly reduces the chances of animal-to-human transmission of viruses (as the Covid19 pandemic might be, although opinions are divided on this).
Additionally, the origin of plant-based foods is easier to check, while in the case of animal-based products, the origin of feed is usually not indicated on the label. As an example, 77% of all the soy produced in the world is used as feed on meat and dairy farms. The world’s largest soy producer is Brazil, where soy cultivation and its growth are among the causes of deforestation, both directly and (mainly) indirectly. 8 it is quite possible that by consuming a glass of Hungarian milk or a slice of Hungarian pork we contribute to the destruction of Brazilian rainforests, since domestic milk and meat production are essentially feed-based (and not of grazing type).
As a conclusion, by changing the way we eat, we can do a lot to create a better, happier and more sustainable future. Even if a vegan lifestyle is not the goal for everyone, reducing meat and dairy consumption will certainly have positive effects. It’s worth following the nutrition recommendations of the EAT-Lancet Commission (by 37 world-leading scientist) that take both health and environmental aspects into consideration: eat vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains every day, and eat only 200 grams of chicken and fish every week, and no more than 100 grams of red meat (or, preferably, none at all).