Theory: World Vegetarianism and Its Effects on the Environment

Vegetarianism is a way of life many of us are already familiar with. More and more people are becoming vegetarians, restaurants now include a lot of options targeted specifically to this group, and then there are those people who think being a vegetarian is a poor life choice. However you look at it, we already know that switching to a plant-based diet is a healthy lifestyle choice for the consumer.

At the same time, we should be more aware that vegetarianism is not only healthier for us. It is also better for the environment. Today, we are going to explore the following:

  • What it means to be a vegetarian.
  • How you can become a vegetarian.
  • Why vegetarianism is a healthy option.
  • What would the implications be for our planet if more people were to switch to vegetarianism.

Let’s begin!

woman with child in her arms in nature

What Is a Vegetarian?

The Vegetarian Society defines a vegetarian as someone who only eats vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, pulses, and seeds, and depending on the case, eggs or dairy products. What do we mean by according to the case? Well, there are different types of vegetarians out there. The most common ones are lacto-ovo-vegetarian (eats eggs and dairy products), lacto-vegetarian (eats only dairy products), ovo-vegetarian (eats only eggs), and vegan (does not eat any type of product coming from animals).

graph illustrating vegetarianism numbers in english speaking nations

Image Source: Avilia’s Way

How to Become a Vegetarian

Now that we’ve established the main types of vegetarianism that you could try, let’s see what you can do to actually switch to a plant-based diet. More often than not, the answer is not as simple as “just stop eating meat”. First of all, if you are not really motivated, your attempt might not be successful. This is a major change in lifestyle, that requires an actual strong motivation behind.

Then, the key is to make the transition as smooth as possible. You can cut out red meat first, for instance. Then, you can substitute meat in your favorite recipes with a vegetarian option. Finally, you will be able to cut out all meat in time. The last thing you should decide on is if you want to continue to consume eggs and dairy products or not. A great guide with tips on vegetarianism, recipes, and many others, you can find on the Peta website.

Why Is Vegetarianism Healthy?

Before getting into the extensive topic of why vegetarianism is better for our environment, and what would happen if more people were to become vegetarians, let’s have a look at why this lifestyle choice is healthy for us humans.

graph showing how much meat people eat all over the world

Image Source: Business Insider

One of the most important benefits of vegetarianism is a healthier heart. The high potassium levels and low fiber in a plant-based diet keep the cholesterol levels in check and lowers your blood pressure. This means less danger of having a stroke or a heart attack. Specialists also believe that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of cancer and diabetes. If you switch to vegetarianism, your weight will also stabilize, and you might even live longer. Plus, you will boost your energy levels and stamina.

Why Is Vegetarianism Better for the Environment?

There are many reasons why choosing vegetarianism protects our environment and makes sure the planet we live on will be able to host us for many years to come. Here are some of the most relevant ones:

1. Helps Preserve the Land

People who eat meat require a lot more empty land than people who base their diet strictly on plants. That is because growing animals and the produce we need to feed them takes up a lot of space. Moreover, animals require much more food in order to be ready for people to eat. Humans would consume much less if they would just directly eat the grains and plants that they feed to the animals instead. In turn, this would preserve land. Overgrazing is a real issue nowadays, and overstocking as well.

2. Stops the Planet from Overheating

Animals release greenhouse gases and leave behind a lot of waste. According to a study conducted by the United Nations in 2006, animal exploitation is responsible for 18% of our planet’s pollution levels. Mind you, this is a higher level of pollution than the one caused by planes, cars, or other means of transportation. How come animals release so many dangerous gases into our environment, you ask? Well, just think about the fact that they produce manure.

Wikipedia definition of Manure: “Manure is organic matter, mostly derived from animal feces except in the case of green manure, which can be used as organic fertilizer in agriculture. Manures contribute to the fertility of the soil by adding organic matter and nutrients, such as nitrogen, that are trapped by bacteria in the soil. Higher organisms then feed on the fungi and bacteria in a chain of life that comprises the soil food web. It is also a product obtained after decomposition of organic matter like cow dung which replenishes the soil with essential elements and add humus to the soil.”

Animal exploitation also requires cars to move their carcasses from one place to another. Then, keep in mind you need gas to cook the meat, and electricity to keep it fresh. And lots of water…

3. Helps Preserve Water

Animals require a lot of water during their lifespan, much more than a human would need when cooking rice, potatoes, wheat, and so on. People already use 70% of our planet’s water supply for farming. If we continue to eat meat the same way, there will be less water for drinking and crops.

4. Stops Poisoning the Earth

As we’ve already established, animal exploitation produces a lot of waste. We have more and more industrial-sized farms, where animals live overcrowded. Farmers throw their manure in cesspools that pollute both the land and the underground water supplies by overflowing, leaking and so on. As an example, in 1995, a lagoon from a pig factory in North Carolina spilled and killed millions of fish.

5. Stops Poisoning Water Sources

A lot of water sources are polluted by waste coming from animals, sewage, farms, fertilizers, nitrogen compounds, and so on. This is how marine life is endangered, throwing the whole ecosystem off balance. Furthermore, specialists already call many areas “dead zones”, which means that they don’t have enough oxygen to support life. Even if animal waste is not the only cause behind these so-called “dead zones”, it is one of them. Consequently, cutting it out would help considerably.

6. Stops Polluting the Air

From greenhouse gases to other types of polluting gases produced by animals, the air around farms can sometimes be hard to breathe. Farmers also use a lot of pesticides, nitrogen, and ammonia for growing crops to feed to the animals. This further pollutes the air.

7. Helps Prevent Disease 

Apart from polluting the land and water sources, animal waste also carries a lot of pathogens. Some examples would be E coli, salmonella, fecal coliform, and so on. These pathogens can affect humans when they touch manure or use water that is already contaminated.

8.Helps Preserve Oil Sources

From when farmers grow the crops the animals will eat, until people buy meat from the supermarkets and cook it, all of the steps require electricity. In turn, traditional sources of electricity require oil, and this is how the world’s oil sources are fast diminishing.

9. Stops Massive Deforestation

People cut a lot of trees to make more room for grazing cattle or building new farms. A 2008 study showed that people convert an area twice as large as Belgium for farming purposes every year.

an area of land affected by deforestation

10. Stops Putting Wildlife Habitats in Danger

Deforestation usually brings with it another extremely dangerous consequence, which is the endangerment of wildlife habitats. A lot of animals who live in different types of trees are forced to find a new home. This can lead to them becoming extinct in time. Lots of species have already been wiped out.

How Would the Future Look If Everybody Would Switch to Vegetarianism?

After everything we’ve been discussing up until now, it is only normal to be tempted to say that the future would look much brighter if people were to become vegetarians. And that is indeed true, but there are other things to consider as well. For instance, not all countries would benefit from people eating a plant-based diet. Those who are still developing might experience difficulties with their economic situation, if this were to happen. However, overall, there are many benefits that a future like that could bring.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

First of all, we would significantly diminish the greenhouse gas emissions. Professor Tim Benton from the University of Leeds, believes that people do not usually think that eating meat is a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Actually, the truth is quite different. A family could be producing more such gases from cooking and eating meat than from driving their cars. Are you curious to know how our planet would look like in 2050 if everybody would switch to vegetarianism? Well, a team at the Oxford Martin School has tried to predict this change. According to them, the greenhouse gas emissions would be 70% lower. Even if it is, of course, unrealistic to believe that everybody will decide to become a vegetarian, the impressive numbers show us how much healthier our environment would be if we would lower the amount of meat we consume.

Using Land Responsibly

The land would also benefit from people switching to vegetarianism. We could use the land that we normally use for cattle to grow crops, replant forests, and rebalance the ecosystem. More green spaces also means less carbon dioxide in the environment, so less climate change and global warming as well. The problem is that we have damaged the land so much with grazing and other farming-related activities, that switching to world vegetarianism would require a large investment. We cannot simply expect to be able to plant crops or grow forests on an area that we’ve already severely damaged.

The Human Factor

What about the people who work in the livestock industry? If the world would become vegetarian, they would need to find other jobs. This could be quite difficult, especially for people in the rural areas that rely heavily on this industry. Luckily, since the process of switching to a plant-based diet requires a lot of planning, investing, and tending to the land, those people could get hired to help.

At the same time, we have to be aware that we could not take all the animals away. That would also hurt the environment and biodiversity. Furthermore, there are places where the land is too arid to plant crops for humans to consume. Such areas thrive on animal agriculture, and trying to grow crops could lead to severe economic consequences, desertification of land, and decreased productivity. To give an example, the Mongols, which are a nomadic group, would have to move to cities if they couldn’t grow cattle anymore. Consequently, the process would destroy their identity as a culture as well.

two women in the field laughing

Speaking of culture, a lot of populations around the world have many customs and traditions that relate to meat and animals. Dishes based on meat are a tradition, in some places while in others people actually exchange livestock as gifts. This is one of the reasons why it is unrealistic to hope that everybody would switch to vegetarianism in the future.

Lower Mortality Rate

However, that doesn’t mean that the benefits of that happening stop here. For instance, the same Oxford Martin School team shows us how the mortality rate would drop 6 to 10%. That is precisely because, as we’ve already seen above, vegetarianism brings a lot of health benefits to humans. 8 million people less would die every year if everybody would be vegan, 7 million if people would all be vegetarian. Plus, medical bills would also be about 3% cheaper.

For this scenario to be possible, people would have to take care of what they use as a substitute for the nutrients they usually get from animal products. This is especially challenging in developing countries, where people deal with starvation on a regular basis.

graph showing the type of food americans consume most

Image Source: Green Eatz

What Would Be a Realistic Solution?

Now that we’ve seen all the benefits associated with a drastic switch to vegetarianism, and we’ve also established that this switch is unrealistic, let’s see what we could actually do to benefit from vegetarianism. Fortunately, the planet doesn’t actually need everybody to become a vegetarian. It only needs people to be more aware of how eating meat affects our environment, and try to limit that consumption.

According to a study published in 2015, if people would stick to what the World Health Organization considers an appropriate amount of meat to consume, the greenhouse gas emission in the UK would drop 17%. The most interesting observation is that people wouldn’t have to quit meat altogether. Actually, they could hardly tell the difference in their diet, yet the environment would benefit so much. There are things we could do to motivate people to consume less meat and more fruits and vegetables. For instance, why not lower the price of plants and increase the price of meat?

a lot of fruits and vegetables on display at the market

Everything Summed up

Although world vegetarianism remains indeed just a theory, an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables and a decrease in the amount of meat people eat every day would definitely provide more practical solutions for our environment. Since eating meat increases the amount of greenhouses gases released into the atmosphere, pollutes the air, water sources, and soil, causes dramatic deforestations, destroys biodiversity, and many others, it comes as no surprise that people would want to switch to a plant-based diet.

For people who feel like they cannot give up meat, the good news is that they don’t have to. All they have to do is limit their consumption in ways that they would barely notice. Which proves that solutions do exist, and all we need is the determination to apply them.

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