Eat green to keep the planet green this Veganuary

Reduce your carbon footprint and fight climate change by choosing a plant-based diet this January


“Eating fewer animal products is the most powerful thing you can do to combat climate change, the 6th mass extinction, habitat loss, deforestation, overfishing, ocean pollution and ocean eutrophication – so take part in the Veganuary challenge and become part of the solution.”

This is accordiong to Kaspar Paur, founder of Oceaneers, a South African organisation that empowers ocean-aligned food choices and creates awareness about industrially fished and/or farmed animal products.

“The best time to eat less animal products was 50 years ago. The next best time is now – especially if you care about the health of our Oceans, and the living planet as a whole!”

In South Africa, we are no strangers to extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change. We have had both devastating droughts and floods impact our agricultural sector. Along with that, poor farm management has increased overgrazing and the loss of biodiversity.

Climate change is a massive threat to food security, water availability, and biodiversity worldwide, as well as a major cause of environmental disasters. The production and consumption of animal products is a major driver of climate change, whereas adopting a plant-based diet helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

A plant-based diet can have numerous positive effects on the environment, including the preservation of biodiversity, more sustainable use of resources, and combatting climate change. 

Compared to plants, production of animal-based foods is more water and land intensive and emits more greenhouse gases. Total agriculture accounts for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, of which 60% is due to animal agriculture. 

What is climate change?

Since the dawn of industrialisation, the average global temperature has been gradually increasing. A great deal of research has shown that this increase is due to human activities and that climate change is rapidly transforming the world we live in. It is already affecting the environment, economy, and society in a variety of ways, and will increasingly influence our daily lives as well. While climate change is marked by long-term incremental changes such as slowly rising temperatures and sea levels, it will also result in a greater number of extreme weather events such as storms, floods, and exceptionally hot summers. These will impact negatively on agriculture, general productivity, and human health. Additionally, climate change results in increased incidences of heat waves that are especially dangerous for children and elderly people.

The role of animal agriculture in climate change

Meat, dairy, and egg production are among the leading causes of human-caused climate change, soil erosion, water pollution, and the decrease in biodiversity. According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations), farmed animals are responsible for 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture also accounts for at least half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions. In total, the global food system contributes about 30% of all human-made emissions. Worldwide, the top 20 meat and dairy corporations produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole of Germany. 


Direct emissions: methane and nitrous oxide from animal husbandry

While carbon dioxide is the most notorious greenhouse gas, responsible for about 27% of animal agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, methane is potentially 28 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential, while nitrous oxide is 265 times as potent. The greatest source of the former is cattle, who, like all ruminants (cows, sheep, and goats), produce methane during their digestive process. This gas is responsible for about 44% of animal agriculture’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrous oxide, on the other hand, is released when animal manure is used as fertiliser, composted, or otherwise processed. It is especially problematic if more nitrogen is used than the vegetation can absorb. About 29% of the meat industry’s emissions are in the form of nitrous oxide. The immense scale of beef and dairy production means that cattle farming contributes the biggest share of the meat industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions, at 65%. Emission levels continue to rise due to ever-intensifying meat and dairy production.


Indirect emissions: Land use changes promote climate change

Besides being a huge source of emissions, animal agriculture further exacerbates climate change as vast areas of forests, grasslands, and wetlands are cleared to provide land for grazing and to grow animal feed crops. Forests and other wildlands mitigate climate change by acting as massive carbon sinks, in which carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere and sequestered underground.


Deforestation has serious consequences for the environment

Often referred to as ‘the lungs of the earth’, the Amazon rainforest is critical to regulating the world’s climate and weather cycles. Yet a staggering 20% has already been destroyed, and an equally large area is facing the same threat. If the destruction of the Amazon rainforest continues unchecked, we will reach a point of no return, which could lead to the complete collapse of the Amazonian ecosystem, with grave repercussions for global climate.

Forests, wetlands, and grasslands fulfil vital functions for local climates and water supplies. Their destruction and conversion to farmland are among the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, the resulting habitat destruction endangers plant and animal wildlife, compounding the pressure on biodiversity and ecosystems.

Thus, animal agriculture has a doubly damaging effect on climate: not only does it produce huge amounts of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, it also destroys Earth’s natural defence systems.


Loss of fertile land diminishes harvests

Additionally, fertile topsoils such as humus and peat, which are rich in organic matter, are at risk of erosion due to deforestation, wetland drainage, and unsustainable land management. These priceless natural resources cannot be restored within our lifetime. Agricultural machinery, over-fertilisation, toxins, and monocultures deplete and loosen the soil, which is then carried away by wind and rain. Poor soil leads to weak harvests, which in turn necessitate the cultivation of ever-expanding areas of farmland. The earth’s soils also act as huge carbon sinks and contain more carbon than the entire atmosphere or all of the planet’s vegetation. The destruction of topsoils further compounds the problem of global warming.


Our food choices determine our carbon footprint

Rising incomes and urbanisation across developing countries are driving an increase in meat consumption. These changing demographics are bringing about a global food transition in which less-processed, highly plant-based traditional diets are being replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, and animal products. If the consumption of meat and other animal products increases at current rates, global greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture will rise by nearly 80% by 2050, making the targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement unrealistic. Therefore, reducing animal consumption is a crucial step towards meeting the 2°C target.

Even though consumption of animal products plays a major role in climate change, there is little public awareness of the link between diet and climate change. Recognising the climate impact of different foods is a crucial first step in making climate-friendly food choices.

Overfishing wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. As well as the populations of species intended for human consumption, the stocks of animals caught as bycatch are also declining. Rampant fishing also causes immense damage to the seabird, jellyfish, and plankton populations. Beyond the sheer volume of fish caught, the fishing methods used are especially damaging to ecosystems as a whole. Bottom-trawl nets, for instance, which are used to catch plaice, sole, and crustaceans, destroy the seabed and the organisms living there, including coral.

Additionally, aquaculture damages the environment in numerous ways. Faeces and feed residues burden the environment and can lead to over-fertilisation of waters and a decline in biodiversity. The use of antibiotics and industrial chemicals further pollutes the waters and can, in a worst-case scenario, encourage the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial strains that may present a risk to humans as well.

A plant-based diet is climate-friendly

There is consistent evidence that diets high in plant-based foods and lower in animal products are less damaging to the climate. Consider, for example, that producing 1 kg of beef releases between 16 kg and 30 kg of carbon dioxide into the environment, while producing 1 kg of tofu releases only 1 kg of carbon dioxide. Replacing beef with beans would free up 42% of US farmland, achieve 75% of the US’s 2020 climate goal, and provide more than sufficient dietary protein. Studies suggest that personal food-related carbon footprints could be halved with the adoption of a plant-based diet, and that if everyone adopted a vegan diet, worldwide food-related greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 70% by 2050. Given that, calorie for calorie, meat, dairy, and other animal-based foods create more greenhouse gases and require significantly more land and other resources than plant-based foods, it is easy to conclude that, besides its many other benefits, a plant-based diet is one of the simplest and most effective ways that each one of us can make a positive impact on climate change.


ProVeg helps reduce greenhouse gases

ProVeg International raises awareness about the climate impact of our food choices by communicating with political decision-makers and civil society organisations. Politicians need to introduce and prioritise food consumption and production, particularly animal agriculture, on both the global climate protection agenda and in national implementation plans. In order to have our voice heard, we team up with others, for example, the German Climate Alliance, a  network of over 100 organisations. Additionally, ProVeg actively negotiates and contributes to national climate change policies through public participation processes.