Are environmental plant-based diets enough?

Graphic by Zoë Carr/Graphics center

Plant-based diets, such as veganism and vegetarianism are often recommended as environmentally sustainable alternatives to typical meat-centric options. Undoubtedly, a plant-based diet is better for the planet as fewer natural resources are needed and less greenhouse gasses are emitted in the production of these foods compared to meat products. 

Championing all-green diets is not necessarily the cure for all environmental problems. Not only does it put pressure on individuals, rather than institutions, to save the world through lifestyle choices, the production of some plant-based foods has led to major resource exploitation and unethical labor practices. Before making the switch, or policing others for choosing to eat meat, one needs to do research to analyze how sustainable plant-based diets really are. 

While everyone has a role to play in sustainability, one person’s choice to eat a steak in no way compares to the destruction that major corporations like Exxon and Chevron inflict on the planet. Research from Dr. Peter Frumhoff at the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that “CO2 and methane emissions from the 90 biggest industrial carbon producers were responsible for almost half the rise in global temperature and close to a third of the sea level rise between 1880 and 2010.”  When we put energy into targeting individuals for their diets rather than holding these fossil fuel giants accountable, it’s not productive for anyone. 

That’s not to say that the meat industry doesn’t put a big strain on the environment. Animals like cows and sheep emit large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “a single cow produces between 154 to 264 pounds of methane gas per year.” Additionally, clearing land for grazing purposes causes massive deforestation. An estimate from the World Research Institute in 2021 shows that cattle ranching is responsible for the destruction of 16% of world forests between 2001 and 2015. 

An article by the Associated Press reveals that “if half of U.S. animal-based food was replaced with plant-based substitutes by 2030, the reduction in emissions for that year would be the equivalent of taking 47.5 million vehicles off the road.” Overall, plant-based food production requires less water, land and generates fewer greenhouse gasses than meat counterparts. 

Between 2018 and 2021 there was a surge in popularity for plant-based meat substitutes, with an estimated 79 million U.S. households consuming meat alternatives in 2021, according to the Plant-Based Foods Association.

The spike in popularity for meatless meat was an optimistic sign. Unfortunately, the hype died down quickly, and sales of plant-based meat have not been advancing enough to cause a serious change to the planet. Environmental scientist David Lobell noted that in terms of reducing climate change, plant-based meat “won’t be fast enough to come close to solving the food emissions problem by itself.”

On top of the slow progress that plant-based meats are making, solving climate change is not as simple as replacing steaks with salads when one takes into account the toll that growing and transporting produce takes on the environment. 

For example, Mexico is the world’s top avocado supplier and producer. Reports from Climate Rights International show that their avocado production has led to deforestation and illegal extraction of water for irrigation, which contributes to water shortages for residents. Embracing a fully plant-based diet won’t help the planet if the plants in question also hold potential for destruction to the environment. 

To get a sense of USF’s thoughts on the effectiveness of cutting out meat for environmental purposes, the Foghorn conducted a poll on Fizz, an anonymous college campus social media app, where users must have a “@dons.usfca.edu” email address to become a member. The Foghorn asked, “Do you believe going vegan/vegetarian is better for the environment?” The poll received 1,263 votes; “No” received 37% (469 votes), tying with “Somewhat”, which also received 37% (462 votes). “Yes” received 26% (332 votes). 

One user “refizzed” the poll with the comment, “Yeah but I’m not finna stop eating in and out cheeseburgers,” a sentiment that many poll participants agreed with.

Research shows that gas emissions from livestock will continue to increase. I believe that while doing what we can as individuals will help, we need radical changes from giant corporations if we’re ever going to combat climate change. It will take more than just a few swapped cheeseburgers to reduce the world’s rising temperatures. 

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, Opinion Editor: Chisom Okorafor 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *