February 22, 2019
By Stanley M. Kaminsky
Early in the morning on February 2nd, famed groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his burrow and didn’t see his shadow, predicting an early spring. You know what that means: your gym is filling up with all of the people thinking ahead to the summer months and their summer bodies. They’re heavying up on their exercise and lightening up on their diets.
While many aim to improve their diets with a focus on healthier bodies, there’s another being whose health we’re all collectively responsible for: Earth. Increasingly, with the effects of climate change being felt in every corner of the country and the world, it’s time to make lifestyle changes that benefit both people and planet. The good news is there’s a solution for both: veganism. A vegan diet reduces greenhouse gas emissions as well as a person’s likelihood of heart disease.
Plant-Eaters Preserve Our Planet
Before delving into how diet in a vegan lifestyle is gentler on the planet than diet in a non-vegan lifestyle, it’s important to first understand that large-scale food production of any kind isn’t exactly kind to the earth. Land used for food and crop production occupies over half of the land of the US, and on that land is an array of dangerous chemicals and substances that find their way into our waterways and our air by means of runoff. However, when you isolate the harsh environmental impacts of animal-based food production from the environmental impacts of plant-based food production, you easily see a drastic difference between the two.
The production of animal-based foods releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, into the planet’s atmosphere. Four University of Oxford faculty members, namely Marco Springmann, H. Charles J. Godfray, Mike Rayner, and Peter Scarborough, conducted a study in 2016 about the cobenefits of dietary change for people’s health and the planet’s health. Springmann and colleagues note that “the food system is responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions… of which up to 80% are associated with livestock production. The aggregate dietary decisions we make thus have a large influence on climate change.”
For an example, North Carolina is partly home to the US hog industry, raising roughly 9.3 million pigs. What happens to all of the urine, fecal matter, and blood from these pigs? The hog farms collect these waste materials and store them in what are commonly referred to as “lagoons.” When Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in 2018, it dumped upwards of 50 inches of rain. Inevitably, the rain caused the waste lagoons to flood and leach into nearby waterways. It especially harmed the nearby communities, who are largely low-income communities of color. It’s a clear example of environmental racism, said the Guardian. In comparison, plant-food production doesn’t require these lagoons, because plants don’t produce urine, blood, and other bodily waste materials that require haphazard storage.
With these examples of animal foods’ harsh environmental impacts in mind, you can begin to understand how switching to a vegan lifestyle is the most sustainable, environmentally-friendly choice. By not eating pork, for instance, you lessen the demand for its production. With less demand for pork comes fewer “lagoons,” which also means fewer tainted waterways. Similarly, by not eating any animal products whatsoever, you greatly reduce your own greenhouse gas emissions; your refusal to participate in the consumption of beef disconnects you from the massive amounts of methane and nitrous oxide spewed into the atmosphere from cow-based factory farming.
Ezra Klein, a journalist who previously wrote for the Washington Post, wrote more about this in 2009. Klein identifies exactly some of the ways livestock production contributes to climate change. He states, “It’s more energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become adults that we then slaughter to feed to people.” Klein also mentions the waste lagoons, claiming that they are essentially “…acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.” Again in comparison, plant-food production requires far less energy and far less emissions because we don’t need to grow animal feed for plants.
Plants Every Day Keep the Cardiologist Away
According to the CDC, the leading cause of death for males in the United States in 2015 was heart disease, at just under 25%. In other words, one quarter of male deaths in the US are due to a failing heart. Similarly, the leading cause of death for females in the US in 2015 was also heart disease, at 22.3%. The CDC’s page for heart disease facts states that the behaviors that put people at risk for heart disease include smoking, excessive alcohol use, physical inactivity, and poor diet.
What constitutes a poor diet? Look no further than the staples of US food. As CNN puts it, the staples of US food are “fast, junk, processed.” Indeed, within CNN’s top five staple foods for the US, there’s the ever-famous cheeseburger, hot dog, and Philly cheesesteak, all of which are laden with processed animal meat.
Renata Micha, an associate research professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, specializes in the relationships between diet and disease. Along with two other researchers, Micha carried out a study in 2010 that analyzed the relationship between processed meat consumption and coronary heart disease. According to observations she gathered, “each serving per day of processed meat was associated with 42% higher risk of coronary heart disease.”
What would happen, then, if people in the US swapped their processed meat diets with healthier alternatives, like more fruit and vegetables? In another study carried out collaboratively by faculty at the University of North Carolina and the University of Zurich, the researchers observed a group of 163 adolescents and their diets and determined the effects of those diets on the adolescents’ health. Unsurprisingly, the researchers concluded that “…a diet pattern higher in fruits and vegetables… is associated with a more favorable risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease.”
The Oxford study on the co-benefits of dietary change for people’s health and the planet’s health explains, “Moving to diets with fewer animal-sourced foods would have major health benefits.” They claim that, across the globe, switching to a vegan diet would result in 8.1 million avoided deaths. These avoided deaths are due to “decreased red meat consumption” and “increased fruit and vegetable consumption.”
The Marketplace is Ready
Vegan products are becoming more available, making it much easier to make the dietary change that vastly improves the health of both people and planet. According to an August 2018 Gallup poll, “Sales of plant-based food grew 8.1% in 2017 alone and exceeded $3.1 billion last year, and plant-based alternatives to dairy products are soon expected to account for 40% of dairy beverage sales.”
The positive impact of veganism is manifold, ranging from the personal to the global. Having second thoughts about that cheeseburger now?