Four reasons why going plant-based promotes social justice
February 19, 2024
Every year on 20 February, the United Nations celebrates World Day of Social Justice as an acknowledgement of the need to build a more just and inclusive world. This year, the central theme is focused on ‘overcoming barriers and unleashing opportunities for social justice’. In that light, we explore four reasons why adopting a plant-based diet can be a powerful opportunity to promote justice in agriculture and beyond.
1. Plant-based diets contribute to environmental justice
Those who are socially, economically, politically, or otherwise marginalised are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental degradation, which is exacerbated by animal agriculture.
For example, vulnerable communities are often located closest to major sources of pollution, such as factory farms. A famous example is the US state of North Carolina, which is known for its high density of hog farms. Since the 1990s, studies have shown that these large-scale feeding operations are far more concentrated in areas with a high population of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour. Producing a staggering amount of waste, hog farms are significant polluters of adjacent air, water, and soil, and frequently put the health of minority communities at risk.
By shifting to more plant-based diets and food systems, we can mitigate these dire consequences. Animal-based foods are responsible for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while livestock production is responsible for around 32% of global anthropogenic methane emissions, a gas far more potent than CO2. Plant-based foods, on the other hand, have a much smaller environmental impact. It is estimated that moving to more plant-based diets could reduce agricultural emissions in high-income countries by 61%. Going plant-based therefore not only helps the planet, but also those who suffer from its destruction.
2. Plant-based diets reduce deforestation
Animal agriculture not only significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, it is also a major driver of deforestation, which often impacts negatively on local communities. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, agricultural expansion drove almost 90% of global deforestation between 2000 and 2018. Much of this can be attributed to livestock farming, which uses around 83% of global agricultural land, an area as big as North and South America combined. In fact, nearly 70% of cleared land in the Amazon, the largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, is used for cattle pasturing.
In addition to the tremendous damage that deforestation is causing to biodiversity, it also has dire consequences for the local, often Indigenous, communities who rely on forests for their livelihoods. For these people, the destruction of forests and their subsequent forced displacement deprives them not only of vital food and materials, but also of their land, their cultural heritage, and their traditions. For example, the Gran Chaco forest, the second-largest forest in South America, is home to around 35 indigenous communities, many of which still follow their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Deforestation for agricultural expansion has deprived many of them of their homes and exacerbated their vulnerability.
3. Plant-based diets minimise zoonoses and antibiotic resistance
Deforestation is also at the heart of a major public health threat linked to industrialised animal agriculture: zoonotic diseases. A zoonosis is an infectious disease that has been transmitted from non-human animals to humans. Well-known examples of such diseases are HIV and swine flu, and an increasing amount of evidence suggests that the COVID-19 virus also originated in non-human animals. It is estimated that about 75% of newly emerging infectious diseases and 60% of infectious diseases in humans are zoonoses, causing around 2.5 billion cases of illness and 2.7 million deaths each year.
The devastating consequences of such disease outbreaks are often borne disproportionately by marginalised communities. A 2020 study has shown that in the UK, almost all ethnic minorities were at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than the white British population. One of the reasons for this is that minority groups were much more likely to work in the health and social-care sectors and already experienced higher prevalence of negative health conditions. Similar findings have been reported for other countries, such as the US.
Intensive animal agriculture is a major driver of zoonotic risk. First, as discussed above, livestock production is a leading cause of global deforestation. This significantly reduces wild animals’ natural habitat, driving them into urban areas, where close contact with humans increases the risk of cross-species disease transmission. Secondly, intensive livestock farming presents a natural breeding ground for the emergence of infectious diseases: stock densities are often high, farming conditions unhygienic, and animals’ immune system severely weakened due to stress and injuries. Lastly, this situation is aggravated by increasing rates of antimicrobial resistance, of which animal agriculture is a major driver. More than 70% of global antibiotics is used on animals in intensive farming. By consuming animal-based products, we habituate our bodies to these medicines and risk becoming immune to their protective effects when we really need them.
4. Plant-based diets avoid harmful slaughterhouse working conditions
Lastly, plant-based diets also avoid the harmful side effects of the meat-packing industry. The slaughter and processing of non-human animals is an inevitable consequence of consuming meat-based products. In addition to the suffering of non-human animals, this highly industrialised process also takes a heavy toll on the slaughterhouse workers themselves.
Indeed, meat processing not only involves hard, repetitive physical labour that can cause serious injuries, but it also imposes severe psychological strains. While the health effects of meat packing continue to remain underexplored, mounting evidence suggests a higher prevalence of mental-health issues among slaughterhouse workers. A 2021 systematic review of the literature found significant evidence for higher rates of depression, anxiety, and psychosis, with workers reporting high levels of stress and symptoms of trauma.
What’s more, in many countries, abattoir workers are more likely to belong to socio-economic and racial minority groups, which makes them even more vulnerable to the dangers of the zoonotic diseases described above. Indeed, around the world, slaughterhouses that continued operating during the COVID-19 pandemic often turned into infectious hotspots, putting workers and communities at risk.
Plant-based diets are far from ethically and environmentally perfect and we need to remember that the growing of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes can also involve seriously unethical practices. However, by reducing our consumption of animal-based products, we can reduce and avoid many of the pernicious social injustices that are an essential part of industrialised animal agriculture. At the end of the day, plant-based diets represent a powerful opportunity to build a world that is healthier, fairer, and more sustainable.
Here are three things you can do to support our mission of reducing the global consumption of animals by 50% by 2040: