A new study conducted by the University of Oxford has shown that changing to a plant-based diet is the ‘single biggest’ way to reduce your environmental impact.
The study, which was published in the journal Science, looked at a dataset that covered 40,000 farms across 119 countries and covered 40 different food items that represent 90% of all food eaten on Earth.
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The study then examined the individual environmental impact of the foods including looking at freshwater use, land use, water pollution, climate change emissions and air pollution.
It covered all aspects of creating the food, from the growing of the food to the consumption of it.
“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.
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“It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” he said.
“Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”
“There are over 570m farms all of which need slightly different ways to reduce their impact. It is an [environmental] challenge like no other sector of the economy.”
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But he said at least $500bn is spent every year on agricultural subsidies, and probably much more:
“There is a lot of money there to do something really good with.”
The study also examined freshwater fish farming which supplies 96% of fish in Europe and has previously been thought to be sustainable for the environment. However, the findings painted a different picture.
You get all these fish depositing excreta and unconsumed feed down to the bottom of the pond, where there is barely any oxygen, making it the perfect environment for methane production,” a potent greenhouse gas, Poore said.
Poore went on to liken animal agriculture to the coal industry.
“Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions,” Poore said.
Prof Tim Benton, at the University of Leeds, UK,
said: “This is an immensely useful study. It brings together a huge amount of data and that makes its conclusions much more robust. The way we produce food, consume and waste food is unsustainable from a planetary perspective.
Given the global obesity crisis, changing diets – eating less livestock produce and more vegetables and fruit – has the potential to make both us and the planet healthier.”
Poore ended by saying:
“The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is a lot.”