Although meatless diets are popular and upcoming amongst many, this lifestyle is a concept still hard to grasp for the majority of people in our society. In fact, while the term “veganism” is something almost impossible to avoid in the era of social media and influencers, the popularity plant-based diets have gained over the last few years made it possible for a lot of misinformation and many misconceptions to spread and make their way through. Critics will argue that giving up animal products will deteriorate individuals’ health, that not everyone has the resources to adopt a plant-based diet, or that one person will not make an environmental difference for the planet. Researchers who took part in recent studies will instead argue that, contrary to popular belief amongst the meat-lovers, a diet free of animal products (or a reduction in its intake) is not only safe for humans but also addresses the poor conditions of livestock while making us a sustainable society that tackles the biggest threat humanity has ever faced: climate change.
A plant-based diet is a diet consisting of mostly and entirely plant-derived foods with few or no animal products. Amongst the many reasons an individual might decide to switch diet, including religion or ethical reasons, a prominent one is health. Many critics spread the idea that a meatless diet will cause dangerous deficiencies, and even though this observation is not completely unfounded, a plant-based diet has been researched through many studies and has been redeemed safe. According to Julieanna Hever, plant-based diets are associated with the improvement of heart-related conditions, reducing medication needs, lowering the risk for multiple chronic diseases, and even possibly reversing conditions like type 2 diabetes (1). This is because plant-based diets introduce an individual to new ways of eating, avoiding unhealthy constituents found in animal products like saturated fats and antibiotics while including plants that promote health and contain many nutrients.
The main concern about vegan and vegetarian diets that the public seems to always focus on is an individual’s protein intake, accompanied by the panic that surrounds the idea of developing a vitamin B12 deficiency. While there are foods rich in protein like legumes, nuts, seeds, soy foods, and whole grains, and it’s possible to have a balanced protein intake, vitamin B12 deficiencies are possible if one is not careful. Although vitamin B12 can be found in fortified plant milks, cereals, nutritional yeast, and some vegetables in a vegan diet, the vitamin is usually not active and our body can only absorb a small dose at a time compared to the easy absorption of the vitamin when we follow an omnivore diet (Hever 7). As a result, individuals who follow a plant-based diet are advised to take a B12 supplement in a higher dose than recommended to ensure appropriate intake.
It is also interesting to notice that vegan and vegetarian diets are also safe for pregnant women and the fetus (both in gestation and during lactation). There have been many claims that non-meat diets often result in unfavorable outcomes on fetal development, but Sebastiani and her colleagues seem to differ. Although they do take in consideration the risk of malnutrition due to low intake of micronutrients such as calcium, iodine, iron, zinc, omega 3, vitamin D and B12, they also argue that what’s most important is a strong awareness about one’s diet to assure a complete intake of key nutrients (Sebastiani et al. 6). If we analyze any pregnancy, the preconception lifestyle typically carries into the pregnancy. Therefore, whether a woman follows an omnivore diet or a plant-based diet, what will determine the fetus’ health is determined more by whether the mother was aware of her eating habits and choices before pregnancy rather than the actual diet type during gestation. In a plant-based diet, there are plant-derived foods to be eaten that can give the woman those nutrients needed for a safe gestation and healthy lactation. Flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds are great foods rich in omega 3; legumes, soy, nuts, grains are also rich in zinc, which absorption can be improved by using different food preparation methods like soaking or fermentation; iron can be found in foods such as soy, beans, and green leafy vegetables (Sebastiani et al. 16-18). Sebastiani and her colleagues analyze studies and conclude that with the correct nourishment, pregnancy outcomes can be, and have been, very similar to those reported in omnivorous women (20).
Despite the popularity veganism and vegetarianism have gained over the last few centuries, factory farming still grows as we try, as a society, to consume the most amount of animal products for the lowest cost possible. We are too far down the history rabbit hole to try to convince ourselves that farming still looks like a version of Little House on the Prairie, with a barn on a pastoral field and maidens who milk cows. The reality of the farming industry nowadays is so horrific that we do everything in our power to justify the system we put in place by remaining ignorant, so reluctant to admit we are all part of a system that involves raising livestock however best fits our wallet, with no concern for the welfare of the animals. Mass production of animal products not only impacts the wellbeing of the animals themselves but also aids the spread of viruses and bacteria that affect consumers. The animals are typically confined together with little to no space for movement which, besides creating stress and suppressing their immune system (which makes them vulnerable to infections), fabricates an area that allows the viruses to spread due to the lack of ventilation or sunlight (Anomaly 246). In addition, many of the animals are grouped with different species than their own, which aids the evolution and prolongation of new virus strains. Jonathan Anomaly provides an interesting analogy between the factory farms and our overcrowded prisons, stating that “crowding permits a quick transfer of microbes and a continuous supply of hosts” (247). To tentatively combat these diseases, the animals are often injected with great doses of antibiotics that build up resistance; the resistance stays in their bodies and gets eventually transferred to us when we consume animal products. In the U.S. alone, in 2011, it was estimated that three-quarters of all antibiotics are utilized and administered in factory farms (Anomaly 248). Unfortunately, the U.S. government grants no protection to animals that society uses for food. Some argue that we have all kind of laws to protect animals but even the Animal Welfare Act passed in 1966 states that “farm animals . . . that are used for agricultural purposes are exempt from coverage by the AWA,” and provides no protection for these animals, just a continuous cycle of gratuitous pain and suffering (Anomaly 250). Unless otherwise forced by circumstances such as socioeconomic status or geographical position, as a high-income country, there is not a desperate need to consume animal products and, certainly, there is not a need to consume as much as we currently are in the U.S. It should be imperative that we take action (given that we have resources and options to still maintain a healthy diet) to free millions of animals from unnecessary and selfish harm.
There are many reasons individuals consider a plant-based diet, as previously mentioned and discussed, but over the last decade, climate change has been the driven motivation for the majority of new vegans and vegetarians. Many consider plant-based diet a new and upcoming concept, born out of social media, but the reality is that it’s a concept born thousands of years ago that’s been discussed over the last ten to twenty years; the era of social media simply gave a platform to those who had a voice and a passion to inform others and inspire them to make better decisions. Looking back in time, one could come across debates and exchange of arguments where veganism and animal welfare were discussed way before the internet had gained the importance it has on our lives today. These debates could generally look like the one between Bruce Friedrich and Wayne Roberts in the New Internationalist from January 2011. While Wayne was discussing the idea of being a green omnivore, and believing in better reforms for the condition and rights of farming animals, PETA’s Vice President Friedrich was bringing up the worrying concepts of the water and land use it requires to produce and sustain our meat-full diet (‘Is being vegan the only green option?’). Wayne argued that, if we were to completely stop the production of animal products as a society, much of the land currently used for livestock wouldn’t be able to be reused for a plant-based diet and would be wasted, as agricultural crops require prime land. Bruce responds with a quite fascinating solution that even today is rare to come across; he states ‘a far better use for arid land is to allow it to revert to wilderness or to use it to grow some of the plentiful vegetation that . . . acts as a carbon sink, slowing the process of global warming’ (‘Is being vegan the only green option?’). Fortunately for us, conversations like the previously analyzed opened the doors for more research and studies to be executed— studies that allowed us a broader view on the effect omnivorous diets have on the planet’s climate, studies that provided us with real numbers we can refer to, studies that inspired others to be part of a change.
Some of these studies have been analyzed by Bingli Clark Chai and colleagues who evaluated the effects of omnivorous, vegetarian, and vegan diets on water footprint, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) to determine which one had the least environmental impact on our planet. According to research, factory farming results in water shortage due to the irrigation required to supply the demand for animal products which continues to increase, and a study determined that the water footprint corresponds to 29% of the global agricultural production (Chai et al. 12). Critics argue that the production for plant-based products typically also require a great amount of water (e.g. almonds for almond milk) but Chai et al. report that ‘even when intensive irrigation is needed for plant-based protein, animal protein production requires 4.4 times as much water’ (12). It is almost absurd to think that one kg of plant-based protein approximately calls for one hundred times less water than one kg of animal protein (12). The journal also reports data for land use for beef compared to staple foods in plant-based diets like rice and potatoes. It was analyzed that each kg of beef requires 163 times more land, 18 times more water use, 19 times more nitrogen, and 11 times more CO₂ than 1 kg of rice or potatoes (Chai et al. 11). Meat production accounts for 39% of global land use for society’s omnivorous diet (Chai et al. 11). To create a mental visual: that is almost half of the earth’s surfaced land. Vegan and vegetarian diets not only had less environmental impact in this study but required much less land use.
The hot topic of environmental vegans, however, circles around greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes greatly to global warming and the climate change we are currently experiencing. According to Chai et al., for the production of one kg of beef, approximately 43% kg of GHGEs are released in the atmosphere, and 80% of all agricultural GHGEs derive from livestock, while dairy production contributes to 40% (11). A different study analyzed by Chai et al. also deduces that if 50% animal products consumed by a European citizen were replaced with a 50% greater bread consumption, then we could possibly reduce GHGEs released by one-third or more (11). Out of all the studies analyzed in “Which Diet Has the Least Environmental Impact on Our Planet? A Systematic Review of Vegan, Vegetarian, and Omnivorous Diets,” the authors concluded that although a vegan diet and vegetarian diet have very similar impacts on the environment, both had a much lower impact when it comes to the contribution to global warming, and when dairy consumption is eliminated, there is a greater outcome and reduction in GHGs emissions, land use, and water demanded for production of plant-based foods (Chai et al. 14). As many critics discuss, one person cannot make an impactful difference, but that is no reason not to take action and do nothing. Research like the above mentioned demonstrates time and time again that a group of people changing daily habits in their diets does produce change, changing not only their personal carbon footprint but tackling the climate change situation at a larger scale. Many environmental vegans also live by the same rules when it comes to other daily life purchases like beauty products, clothing, or home appliances, further lowering their personal waste and indirect contribution to unethical industries like the fast fashion industry and the make up industry.
Unfortunately, while it is unlikely for us to ever reach 100% sustainability in all that is produced and consumed, studies have demonstrated mindful and aware individuals with socioeconomic and geographical resources available do make a difference and have the power to save the planet for future generations and slow down the rate at which the animal industries are contributing to climate change. In addition, critics’ arguments in regard to the danger of certain deficiencies in meatless diets are not supported by recent data that demonstrates that a knowledgeable individual is safe and well-nourished on a plant-based diet, even during delicate life events such as pregnancy. The greatest outcome of all, however, is that whether someone’s reasons for switching diets are health or environment related, the bigger impact is usually reflected in the lives of animals that are repeatedly abused and whose rights are continuously disregarded in order to benefit lucrative and unethical organizations. And while fighting for all animals’ lives is important, by doing so we as a society activate a ripple effect that ultimately prevents the spread of infections and viruses within our communities, and that’s the definition of a win-win situation. In conclusion, although omnivorous diets might have been necessary for the sustainment of humanity in previous centuries, in today’s world and with the resources available to us, the options are so many and so vast that there is little excuse to contribute to animal abuse and the end of the planet as we’ve always known it.
- Anomaly, Jonathan. “What’s Wrong With Factory Farming?” Public Health Ethics, vol. Volume 8, no. 3, 2015, pp. 246–54
- Chai, Bingli Clark, et al. Which Diet Has the Least Environmental Impact on Our Planet? A Systematic Review of Vegan, Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diets. 30 July 2019.
- Friedrich, Bruce. ‘Is being Vegan the Only Green Option?’ New Internationalist, no. 439, Jan 2011, pp. 34-36. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1285070486?accountid=15152.
- Hever, Julieanna. “Plant-Based Diets: A Physician’s Guide.” The Permanente journal vol. 20,3 (2016): 15-082. doi:10.7812/TPP/15-082
- Sebastiani, Giorgia, et al. ‘The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diet during Pregnancy on the Health of Mothers and Offspring.’ Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 3, 2019, pp. 557, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/nu11030557.