Saving Earth: Is veganism good for the planet? Here's why the solution is not that simple

Saving Earth: Is veganism good for the planet? Here's why the solution is not that simple
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Planet Earth is in dire need of solutions. Astronomer Carl Sagan once said that we have a responsibility "to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Our campaign Saving Earth focuses on nature and wildlife conservation and this column will feature stories on the pressing needs of our planet and hopefulness of our fight.

While the fossil fuel industry takes a chunk of the rap for its carbon footprint, meat and dairy industries aren't far behind. In fact, scientists say that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way the average person can contribute to the fight against anthropogenic climate change. Meat production is the primary source of methane emissions — a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period — and beef cattle produced over 70 percent of it via enteric fermentation (belching and farting) in 2016. Dairy production accounted for another 25 percent that year.

A  2018 report from the EPA found that methane emissions from beef cattle increased in the United States by nearly 2 percent between 1990 and 2016, driven in part by increases in the cattle population. Animal-based foods tend to have a higher footprint than plant-based. Lamb and cheese both emit more than 20 kilograms CO2-equivalents per kilogram. Poultry and pork have lower footprints but are still higher than most plant-based foods, at 6 and 7 kg CO2-equivalents, respectively.

Most greenhouse gas emissions result from land-use change and from processes at the farm stage. Farm-stage emissions include processes such as the application of fertilizers – both organic ("manure management") and synthetic — and enteric fermentation (the production of methane in the stomachs of cattle). Combined, land use and farm-stage emissions account for more than 80% of the footprint for most foods.

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So, the argument for going vegan is quite clear. Veganism avoids meat and dairy and has been touted as the way to go if you want to help save the planet, in addition to getting healthier. However, veganism has its downfalls too, and what it comes to is that the unsustainable consumption of food — vegan or not — that needs to be addressed. 

For instance, many vegan-favorite foods are not as green as one might think. Quinoa — a vegan superfood that is popular in veganism — is often flown halfway across the planet from where it is farmed in South America. The carbon footprint from that air travel is often more than eating meat that is locally sourced. Delicate fruits like blueberries and strawberries, for example, are often imported to Europe and the US by air to fill gaps left when local fruits are out of season.

Research by Angelina Frankowska, who studies sustainability at the University of Manchester, recently found that asparagus eaten in the UK has the highest carbon footprint compared to any other vegetable eaten in the country, with 5.3kg of carbon dioxide being produced for every kilogram of asparagus, mainly because it is imported by air from Peru.

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Another vegan favorite is the avocado — it is a versatile fruit that can be used in toasts, milkshakes and salads, to name a few. However, avocado production has an emissions footprint of 846.36g CO2, almost twice the size of one kilo of bananas (480g). This is because of the complexities involved in growing, ripening and transporting the popular green fruit.

Avocados are mostly grown in the tropical southern hemisphere, in countries such as Chile, Peru, or South Africa, and need to be imported to the countries in the global north, where avocado consumption is popular. They also use huge amounts of water in production. A single mature tree in California, for example, needs up to 209 liters (46 gallons) every day in the summer – more than what is needed to fill a large bathtub. In some areas, like Peru and Chile, the growing demand for the crop has led to illegal extraction from rivers and has been blamed for an increasing water-shortage crisis.

There are, of course, other factors to consider as well. Artificial fertilizers, for example, account for at least 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the industry. The production of synthetic fertilizer emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into the atmosphere, while their use on fields releases nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas.

Agricultural practices such as the tilling of fields also release large volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and help to speed up erosion. The truth, however, is that the current lifestyles and consumption rates are far too unsustainable to be good for the planet. Reducing meat consumption is certainly important to address this concern, and while going vegan might help, we need to be more mindful of choosing what we eat.

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