The political response to climate change from a number of countries, in particular Australia and USA, has been lacklustre. In the last few days, there has even been discussion of President Donald Trump potentially pulling out of the Paris accord. We can obviously no longer rely on governments to guarantee a solution. Many people have taken the first steps in reducing their environmental impact by swapping their car time for a bike or bus, adding solar panels to their home, or being more conscious of their water use. There is one option for reducing personal environmental impact that is surprisingly effective, but very often overlooked.
Adopting a plant-based, or vegan, diet is one of the most effective individual acts you can make to reduce your impact on the environment and CO2 emissions (more effective than forgoing showers, having solar panels, or using bikes instead of cars). Using American figures, on average vegans use 1/18th as much land for food as a meat eater, while vegetarians use 1/6th as much. Vegans also use 50% as much carbon dioxide, 9% as much oil and 8% as much water.
In 2006, the Livestock’s Long Shadow report (by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) highlighted the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Of note, an estimated 14.5% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the result of the livestock industry.
Globally, farm animals produce around 130 times more waste than humans. This waste can be home to a range of diseases. If waterways become contaminated by this waste, it can be disastrous for human health. If the wastewater reaches the ocean, it can be a source of major environmental degradation, creating what are known as dead zones. The Australian livestock industry also uses a disproportionate amount of water resources.
The impact of climate change is increasing, and will continue to increase into the future, even with immediate action. Of particular note to Australians are the effects on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Over the last 100 years, sea temperatures on the GBR have risen by around 0.4°C. The combination of rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification will lead to more frequent and intense coral bleaching events and a reduced ability of corals and other sea organisms to calcify.
Rising land surface temperatures will also lead to more heatwaves, with the governments’ own estimates suggesting a quadrupling of heatwave related deaths in Australia by 2050. This will hit our ageing population the hardest. The World Health Organisation estimates that, from 2030 to 2050, an additional 250,000 deaths will result each year due to climate change.
In addition to the serious environmental impact of animal agriculture, there are a range of global health issues that can be simultaneously addressed. A few weeks ago, an open letter was written to the next Director-General of the WHO (shortly after revealed to be Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus), calling on them to recognise factory farming as a major global health challenge, and signed by notable individuals such as Noam Chomsky and Mark Bittman.
By this time next year, 700,000 people will have died as the result of resistance to antibiotics. The bulk of antibiotic use is not in humans, but in the livestock industry, to increase productivity and keep animals alive. With a growing global population, these issues will only get more serious.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation announced that processed meats are a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans), and red meats are a Group 2A carcinogen (probably carcinogenic to humans). A diet rich in plant-based food is suggested to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, and reduce the risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease.
Animal agriculture also creates unimaginable suffering for the animals themselves. Undercover investigations in Australia have revealed pain and suffering as standard, particularly in the industrial farming of pigs and chickens. Most people agree that needlessly causing animal suffering is wrong, and so by simply avoiding animal products, you can align your ethical values with your actions.
Living a compassionate and environmentally-minded lifestyle has never been easier. Increased demand for plant-based foods from vegans and non-vegans alike has lead to the creation of realistic animal product alternatives that are now readily available at supermarkets. With relatively little planning, a plant-based diet can be cheaper, healthier and delicious.
So while you consider your bike and solar panels this World Environment Day on June 5, why not give a plant-based diet a go as well? Bring the family together over a tasty meal and let your imagination run wild. Who knows, you might even decide that it was so easy you will want to keep going.