Quantcast
Food
USDA

Would Going Vegan Help Save the Environment?

Along with the health benefits and the animal welfare standpoint, advocates of a plant-based diet often tout the environmental pluses of ditching animal products. As studies show, livestock production has a long list of planetary burdens, from rampant land use to water depletion and pollution, and is a major contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But suppose that, in a highly unlikely scenario, every single American decided to go vegan. Would that help slash our agricultural footprint? Well, according to a new study from two animal science researchers, the answer is yes but it's probably less than you might think.


The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, determined that if every American went vegan, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would decrease 28 percent. That's a lot, but that figure does not fully counterbalance the current animal contribution of greenhouse gases of 49 percent in the team's model.

While such a diet would significantly reduce emissions, the researchers pointed out that a national population of more than 320 million vegans would be highly reliant on crop production, which has its own negative environmental impacts.

The paper was authored by Robin White at the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Mary Beth Hall of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison.

Here's how the two came up with their assessment, according to Science:

"[White and Hall] began by estimating the impact of converting all land now used by the livestock industry to cropland for human food. That would increase the amount of agricultural waste—corn stalks, potato waste, and other inedibles now fed to livestock—and eliminate the animals that now eat much of it. Burning the excess waste would add some 2 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere, they estimate. Fertilizer demands would also go up while the supply of animal manure dwindled. That would mean making more artificial fertilizer, adding another 23 million tons of carbon emissions per year.

As a result, although animals now make up some 49% of agricultural emissions in the United States, a vegan nation would eliminate far less than that. Annual emissions would drop from 623 million tons to 446 million tons a year."

The authors also said that an animal-free diet would not meet the U.S. population's nutritional requirements for calcium, vitamins A and B12, and a few key fatty acids.

"Overall, the removal of animals resulted in diets that are nonviable in the long or short term to support the nutritional needs of the U.S. population without nutrient supplementation," the authors wrote in their paper.

If more people decided to eschew or eat less meat, it could really go a long way in mitigating climate change but wouldn't completely solve the problem. A recent article titled "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice," that was signed by more than 15,000 scientists, called on global leaders to act on climate and also suggested a range of individual actions to help avert global environmental disaster, such as having fewer children and using fewer resources, from fossil fuels to meat.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Health
San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Tjeerd Wiersma from Amsterdam, The Netherlands / CC BY 2.0

How Coca-Cola and Climate Change Created a Public Health Crisis in a Mexican Town

A lack of drinking water and a surplus of Coca-Cola are causing a public health crisis in the Mexican town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Some neighborhoods in the town only get running water a few times a week, so residents turn to soda, drinking more than half a gallon a day on average.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Emilie Chen / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Against All Odds, Mountain Gorilla Numbers Are on the Rise

By Jason Bittel

The news coming out of East Africa's Virunga Mountains these days would have made the late (and legendary) conservationist Dian Fossey very happy. According to the most recent census, the mountain gorillas introduced to the world in Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey's book and the film about her work, have grown their ranks from 480 animals in 2010 to 604 as of June 2016. Add another couple hundred apes living in scattered habitats to the south, and their population as a whole totals more than 1,000. Believe it or not, this makes the mountain gorilla subspecies the only great apes known to be increasing in number.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Plastic trash isn't safe for kids, whether human or bear. Kevin Morgans Wildlife Photography

Even Polar Bear Cubs Can’t Escape Plastic Pollution

By Allison Guy

Plastic bags are often stamped with an all-caps warning: This bag is not a toy. Unfortunately, polar bear moms don't have much control over their kids' playthings.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights
Sea level rise is a natural consequence of the warming of our planet. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We Can’t Hide From Global Warming’s Consequences

Over the past few months, heat records have broken worldwide.

In early July, the temperature in Ouargla, Algeria, reached 51.3°C (124.34°F), the highest ever recorded in Africa! Temperatures in the eastern and southwestern U.S. and southeastern Canada have also hit record highs. In Montreal, people sweltered under temperatures of 36.6°C (97.88°F), the highest ever recorded there, as well as record-breaking extreme midnight heat and humidity, an unpleasant experience shared by people in Ottawa. Dozens of people have died from heat-related causes in Quebec alone.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
Stacey_newman / Getty Images

More Than a Third of Schools Tested Have ‘Elevated Levels’ of Lead in Drinking Water

A troubling new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that more than a third of the nation's schools that tested their water for lead found "elevated levels" of the neurotoxin. But despite heightened concern in recent years about lead in drinking water, more than 40 percent of schools surveyed conducted no lead testing in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Bill Pugliano / Stringer / Getty Images

Can Elon Musk Fix Flint’s Water?

By Fiona E. McNeill

The Michigan community of Flint has become a byword for lead poisoning. Elon Musk recently entered the fray. He tweeted a promise to pay to fix the water in any house in Flint that had water contamination above acceptable levels set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
A researcher at Oregon State University examines creeping bentgrass. Oregon State University / Flickr / Tiffany Woods

You Need to Be Paying Attention to GMO Grass

By Dan Nosowitz

Creeping bentgrass doesn't get as much attention as other genetically modified plants. But this plant tells us an awful lot—emphasis on the "awful"—about how GMO plants are regulated and monitored.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Alaska Wilderness League

Grassroots Fighters for the Arctic Refuge Take the Case to DC

By Rebekah Ashley

Even though our day-to-day existence may be far removed from Arctic Alaska, we must stand for the protection of the Arctic Refuge and ask our representatives to do the same.

Most Americans oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, a majority of us "strongly oppose it." This broad public concern echoed through the halls of Congress during Alaska Wilderness League's Wilderness Week, when more than 25 people from around the country (as far as Alaska and as young as six months) convened in Washington, DC, in late May to advocate for the protection of the Arctic Refuge. Collectively, our group met with more than 60 offices in just three days.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!