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Can a vegan diet help the Environment?

27 March 2019 at 15:31

Can a vegan diet help the Environment?

The environmental impact of meat and dairy consumption has been well-publicised recently, with cattle accounting for considerable amounts of greenhouse gas emissions as well as using significant amounts of water, land and other resources in farming. In fact, the amount of methane produced by just one cow in a year has been estimated to have the equivalent negative effect of burning 1000 litres of petrol  - enough to drive 7,800 miles. Livestock are also said to occupy over 30% of the entire land surface on earth, with huge amounts of Amazon rainforest being cleared to provide land for grazing.

Animal welfare was the number one reason that people signed up for Veganuary (going Vegan for the month of January) in 2019, but environmental concerns also ranking highly. So what are the main environmental issues of animal produce? And are vegan foods all entirely innocent?

Environmental effects of agriculture – some facts

Greenhouse gas emissions

  • Livestock and their by-products account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
  • Emissions for agriculture are projected to increase 80% in the next 30 years
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation industry
  • Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day, and methane has a global warming potential 86 times greater than CO2. This means reducing methane emissions would have a far greater benefit than reducing CO2 emissions


  • While we are all being told to save water, did you know that it takes 2,500 gallons of to produce 1lb of beef? This means just one hamburger uses as much water as showering for 2 months.
  • Another startling fact is that is takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk.
  • Agriculture is responsible for nearly 90% of the entire water consumption in the US – the majority being used to grow animal feed

Land and oceans

  • Livestock covers over a third of the earth’s total land, with up to 5 acres required per cow. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction and habitat destruction
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for destruction of over 90% of Amazon rainforest, with 1-2 acres being cleared every second.
  • The use of seafood and fish as a protein source is unsustainable – it is estimated that for every 1lb of fish caught a further 5lb of sea creatures are netted and removed from the ocean. At this rate, the ocean could be free of fish within the next 30 years.

What about vegan alternatives?

The environmental evidence for following a vegan diet appears strong. However it is still important to remember that some vegan choices will have an environmental impact, and be mindful of this when creating a diet:

SOY MILK production of uses significantly less water and land than dairy milk; however there are environmental consequences of transportation since soybeans do not grow well in UK soils the majority are imported from Brazil and the US. There are also well-documented links between soybean production and deforestation, with large amounts of rainforest being destroyed each year to grow the crop.

ALMOND MILK requires also as much water to produce as dairy milk (900 litres of water per litre of almond milk). Because 80% of the world’s almonds come from California, which has suffered some of the worst droughts in history, almond production is having a major environmental impact. Commercial almond milk can also be high in sugar and surprisingly low in almonds.

IMPORTED FOOD is common on our supermarket shelves – we see pomegranates and mangos from India, blueberries from the US and goji berries from China. According to the Vegan Society, the UK has good growing conditions for many plant proteins including fava beans, peas, and hemp seed. However, less than 20% of agricultural land in the UK is assigned to growing these crops, while we continue to import plant proteins like lentils and chickpeas from across the globe.

QUINOA and AVOCADOS have both received bad press for the problems caused to local communities when demand for these foods surged amongst Western populations. Kenya – one of the world’s largest providers of Avocados - banned export of the fruit in 2017 because the country’s supply had become critically low, while the price for locals soared. In 2013 the price of quinoa (a staple food for those living in the Andes) had trebled in less than a decade, creating great profits for farmers but becoming too expensive for locals.


We can clearly see the huge environmental impact of meat and dairy products, so even if you are not ready to eat an entirely vegan diet you can make a big contribution to the environment by cutting down the amount of animal products you eat and choosing local rather than imported produce. For more information on the issues with agriculture, see:

If you do decide to try a vegan diet, careful planning and a consultation with a nutrition expert is recommended in order to avoid nutrient deficiencies. You can read more about the nutritional impact of a vegan diet here

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Posted in Education | Environment | Health | Nutrition | Research

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