Between 2021 and 2022 veganism in the UK experienced a staggering 40% increase. Whilst vegetarian and vegan diets have been adopted for many decades due to moral concerns over the welfare of animals, in the last 10 years meat-free diets have also been adopted for supposedly being healthier for the planet.
Many people now believe that plant-based is best for the planet, but just what is a plant-based diet anyway?
A plant-based diet excludes animal-derived products including meat and dairy but following a plant-based diet does not necessarily make you vegan since veganism avoids the use of all animal products and often incorporates animal activism.
Plant-based diets may be adopted for several reasons including health motivations since plant-based diets usually focus on eating whole foods. Whilst human health is often a big factor in the decision to go meat-free, so too is protecting the future of the planet.
But, why might adopting a plant-based diet help us to fight climate change?
Here are some of the reasons why plant-based is best for the planet:
Reduction In Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Livestock farming releases a large amount of methane into the environment and this contributes to global warming. Furthermore, livestock farming uses far more phosphate fertilisers releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Also, animal agriculture often involves more transportation leading to a higher carbon footprint. In comparison, crop farming releases far less methane and, since less land space is needed, can be more localised, lessening the carbon footprint in many cases, if properly managed and locally sourced food is encouraged and supported.
Improving our health may seem to be a separate reason for choosing a plant-based lifestyle but it’s still linked to the health of the planet. Illness, especially long-term illness costs more than money to treat, we are also producing waste. We saw this in the pandemic with single-use masks, COVID-19 tests and other PPE that was often plastic and had to be discarded after each use. This is, at this stage, unavoidable. Medical waste is a huge problem for the environment but it’s important to say that this is a non-negotiable until a better solution is found.
Hygiene equipment and sterile environments are essential for any medical treatment and no one should feel personal responsibility for this, including those who work in the profession. However, the reality is that if humankind is in more need of medical intervention then medical waste rises. With many medical conditions arising or being made worse by poor diet, it stands to reason that the unhealthier our bodies are, the more problems this poses for the environment.
Plant-based diets, if properly balanced, can be a healthy option. However, there are caveats to this. Whilst vegan diets do not dictate which food to eat, except for those that do not harm animals in the process, a plant-based diet is more associated with whole, non-processed, foods. Meat alternatives and other highly processed foods still contain many potentially harmful ingredients that our bodies do not know how to process. BBC’s Panorama recently addressed this in a 2023 documentary, Ultra-Processed Foods: A Recipe For Ill Health.
Following a healthy diet is a preventative measure. Of course, there are exceptions and some are simply unlucky but there is no doubt that a balanced whole foods diet can contribute to a healthier lifestyle that lessens the need for medical intervention.
It is necessary though, if you are going to follow a diet without dairy and meat, to learn a bit more about nutrition, including the foods you need to stay healthy. Plan meals with nutrition in mind and you will most likely improve your health and wellbeing significantly.
Less Plastic Packaging
Unfortunately, in UK supermarkets we see many products wrapped in plastic that don’t necessarily need to be. There is an argument that wrapping results in a longer shelf life which reduces food waste. However, reducing the amount ordered would achieve the same results without producing plastic waste, especially since much of this is about the aesthetics of full shelves, not customer needs. Meat products, however, will always need plastic wrapping due to food hygiene and safety. Whereas, although it is not as common practice as it should be, it is very possible to buy zero-packaging fruit and veg, especially locally sourced. For instance, organic fruit and veg delivery companies, such as Riverford and The Organic Delivery Company offer zero-packaging options for food boxes.
Whilst any farming impacts the environment, animal farming takes up far more green space because we are both using land space for keeping livestock and for growing feed. You may have heard soy production used as an argument against vegan and plant-based diets, but most soy production is mostly used to support livestock and very little is used for human consumption.
Tragically, the single biggest source of habitat destruction is the livestock sector.
We have lost so many of our natural wild spaces, especially rainforests, to livestock farming. This robs the world of such a large supply of oxygen and essential remover of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Plant-based farming (for human consumption) has a far smaller land footprint when supplying the equivalent amount of food.
Less Processing and Refrigeration
Dairy and meat need to be kept in the fridge so we know it uses more energy in the home to keep these foods fresh. However, refrigeration processes begin a long time before food enters our homes. As much of our meat and dairy foods need to be kept cool as they are transported and stored pre-sale, a lot of energy is required to keep them fresh. This is also the case for some plant-based food but not all. It is also more possible to source plant-based food locally whereas much of our meat and dairy comes from further afield (pun intended), especially since post-Brexit trade deals.
In addition to refrigeration, other processing uses energy. Generally, a plant-based whole-foods diet will not require much processing at all which is better for our health and reduces the carbon footprint. Although it’s important to mention that many vegan ‘meat’ alternative products are highly processed and usually not anywhere near as healthy as the packaging might suggest.
A seriously underestimated threat to our planet is the reduction in soil diversity. Farming has been a significant contributor to this because, without diverse plant life and wild spaces, the soil becomes simplified and naturally tailors itself to support only what is grown. This is useful for farming but not for the nurture of our wild spaces. Soil diversity is essential for ecosystems and keeping balance in nature which also supports human life. So, whilst crop farming when not properly managed can damage soil diversity, due to crop rotation this is generally better managed when producing plant-based foods for human consumption than when growing crops for animal feed to support livestock farming.
When growing food for animal feed, crops are restricted. Yet, when growing crops for humans, farmers can grow a more diverse range of fruits, vegetables and legumes which can keep soil healthy. Spaces can also be rewilded in between growing seasons as part of crop rotation which can support wildlife as well as enable the soil to support more diverse plant life. Therefore, diversifying our intake our plant-based foods can be better for the planet.
Water Consumption And Contamination
Agriculture uses a phenomenal amount of fresh water and the majority of water used in farming goes to supporting livestock. This is a significant issue because we have water scarcity in many regions and this impacts aquatic ecosystems. Generally, animal products have a higher water footprint than most plant-based alternatives. For instance, beef carries a larger water footprint per calorie than legumes and vegetables. Therefore, eating a plant-based diet could help to conserve water.
Another related issue is what livestock farming does to the water supply. Pollution of our water sources is a huge problem and affects both human and aquatic health. Animal agriculture results in a huge amount of animal waste which often finds its way into our water supply. So too do the fertilisers used in animal feed production. The flow of animal agricultural waste and fertilisers into water sources results in harm to aquatic life, oxygen depletion, dead zones in rivers, lakes and wetlands, an increase in harmful bacteria and potential contamination of our drinking water. Not to mention it makes many freshwater rivers and lakes now unsafe for people to enter, creating another barrier to humankind’s relationship with the natural world.
We have a growing population and generally, we’re living longer. Of course, this could change if pollution and climate change continue to increase but right now, we have to work out how we can best support an increasing population.
According to research cited in the hugely popular Netflix series, The Game Changers, animals consume six times more protein than they produce. Forget animal welfare, forget health, forget deforestation and the impact this has on climate change because you don’t need to know anything about that even to see that this is a flawed system. It’s just not smart. We cannot afford to be growing plants to sustain livestock that provides less nutrition to fewer people. Meat, dairy, egg and fish farming uses 83% of the world’s farmland but provides only 18% of the world’s calories. This is not a good use of resources and it’s not a good use of land.
If we continue to prioritise livestock and dairy farming we’re going to have to continue to cut down rainforests and destroy more habitats to support a growing population. Yet, if more people adopt or shift more towards a plant-based lifestyle, we could localise food production.
Smallholdings take up far less space than farms but can grow enough food to support small local communities. Furthermore, with the rise of AI and the future of work looking so precarious, human beings will need to reevaluate how time and labour are spent. Going back to growing our own foods and transitioning to a far smaller circular economy may not only be better for the planet but necessary for humankind as digitalisation continues to change the way we work and live.
Why Do Olive & Joyce Care Whether Plant-Based Is Best For The Planet?
Olive & Joyce Skincare is made entirely from plants. Built on a philosophy that less is more, we source and blend the earth’s most magical ingredients to craft skincare that is naturally nourishing. However this planet came to be, it has gifted us with an ecosystem that is as wondrous as it is delicate. One that supports humankind, animals and plants. So, when I see the very clear evidence that we’re harming this planet, I have to act.
I’m a mother, a business owner and many other things besides and I probably can’t change the world single-handedly. But I can make sure all Olive & Joyce products are palm-oil free, cruelty-free and use only the best sustainably sourced 100% natural ingredients. I can make sure we are using as little plastic and as little packaging as possible. I can speak up and share the information I learn about how we can better protect the planet, fight deforestation and protect our water sources. So I do and so thank you for listening.
One thing I know makes a huge difference, is being plant-based. Or at least moving more towards a whole foods plant-based diet. That’s why I wanted to share with you some of the reasons why plant-based is best for the planet. Many of these reasons inspired me to go plant-based too.
Of course, diet is personal and, whilst our products are vegan, they are not only for vegans. We do not judge here. What I would gently urge anyone to do though, is to consider looking at how adapting our diet may reduce our carbon footprint because if each one of us can do this, it can make a huge difference.
After all, all beauty, both yours and that of our wondrous planet, deserves to be celebrated, protected and cared for.