There are few people who hate the environment. In fact, it’s safe to say that most people quite like it: green trees, breathable air, clean water—I downright love it myself. Whatever your feelings towards the environment, though, there’s no denying that it plays a crucial role in human existence. That fact is manifest in the central role environmental issues take in political and social discourse, and it forms the basis for the various green movements that have proliferated in the past several decades. These movements often produce positive results like heightened awareness to policy change, and they are frequently effective in uniting a group of citizens around a common purpose.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these movements, but they are often unconsciously undermined by the very people participating in them. Our effect on the environment is not limited to signatures on petitions or reusable shopping bags; on the contrary, our very existence exerts an influence on our surroundings. And, of course, our dietary choices comprise a significant part of this existence: what we are putting inside our bodies, where it comes from, where it ends up, all of these elements enter into the complex web of factors that determine our air, water and soil quality.
So how to choose among the constellation of diets out there? Omnivore, pescetarian, vegetarian (ovo-lacto, one or the other, or neither), or vegan? Should you refrain from red meat, or perhaps go locavore? Of course the answers aren’t always clear-cut, but there is a tremendous amount of information indicating that a proper vegan diet is the most environmentally friendly choice there is. “Proper” is the key term—eating chemically-derived and highly processed foods imported from exotic locales is hardly more sensible than eating meat (although it is more cruelty-free).
Our dietary choices impact a wide range of environmental areas that have become buzzwords and hot-button issues in popular culture. Climate-change is one of these contentious issues that has sparked heated debates and numerous social movements, and one that is profoundly affected by human diet. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a report in 2006 showing that the livestock sector accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gases and 64 percent of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. That is more than the amount emitted by transportation, yet buying a Hybrid rather than a Hummer is still considered more “environmentally friendly” than buying a salad instead of a steak. The report also showed that a tremendous amount of water (8% of all human water use) is used in the livestock sector: this water is used for nourishing, slaughtering and processing animals, and must be re-processed through water purification systems at great resource cost.
Land is yet another area that is adversely affected by the livestock industry: according to the Vegan Society, 35% of soil degradation is caused by overgrazing and 60% of deforestation is to make way for livestock farms. The livestock being raised in these areas produces an incredible amount of waste (one dairy cow produces 120 pounds of wet manure a day, the equivalent waste of 20-40 humans) which pollutes river and stream systems and poses health hazards to neighboring communities. The antibiotics and other harmful substances animals are fed in factory farms compounds this problem.
There are countless other statistics and figures showing the deleterious effects of farming animals for their meat, milk and eggs, and the common thread through all of them is that consuming animal products perpetuates a system that is irrefutably damaging our planet and ourselves. The United Nations has declared that a vegan diet is an essential ingredient in the remedy to climate change, and health experts have long extolled the benefits of a plant-based diet.
There are a myriad of factors that contribute to dietary choices, and the environment is not usually the first one that comes to mind. It’s sometimes hard to make the leap from your plate of steak to rising sea levels, or your hamburger to the ozone layer. Unless we start making these connections, though, our other environmental efforts will fall short. This is not to say, of course, that we should not be taking action on the political level (by, for example, signing a petition against the Keystone XL oil pipeline) and the social level (by, for example, educating our family and friends about the global implications of our own dinner tables). But these efforts must be preceded by a deliberate and deep exploration of our actions on the individual level, starting with our diets.
There is an important caveat: that the vegan diet in question must be a proper one; that is, one consisting of whole foods, preferably locally-grown and seasonal, and accompanied by a lifestyle that embraces all living things. People must begin to think more deeply about the implications of their meals, and act accordingly. This could mean trying to cut back on the consumption of animal products, or refusing to patronize fast food establishments like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everything that we do has an impact on our environment, and our diet is a great place to start making that impact a positive one.