What if one day everyone on Earth pulled their forks away from their steaks and turned vegan? Either for the sake of a healthier lifestyle, to alleviate animal suffering, or to fight global warming – everyone found their own reason to say “no” to a juicy burger…a fluffy omelette…or a cheesy pizza. Even ice cream would make the no-no list. Would the vegan diet save the planet from climate change? Would this improve your health? What would happen to all those cattle?
There’re 20 million vegans in the U.S. alone – 6 times more than there were in 2015. Tofu is filling in for meat in restaurant menus. Dairy-free milk alternatives are pushing their way onto supermarket shelves. What was once a radical diet choice is becoming mainstream.
Did you know? Food produced by animals is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Most of that comes from cows. Every year, the world’s cattle population leaves a carbon footprint equivalent to CO2 emissions of every car, train, ship and aircraft in the world put together.
If one day, all of humanity went vegan, would a veggie-based diet save the world? Wait, how exactly does livestock contribute to global warming?
There’s about 1.5 billion cows in the world, and each cow releases up to 120 kg (265 pounds) of methane per year. On the climate change scale, methane’s negative effect is 23 times higher than carbon dioxide’s.
On top of that, cattle take as much as two-thirds of all the agricultural land on the planet. If we all went vegan, we’d use most of that pastureland for restoring forests and grasslands to help reduce carbon dioxide in the air. We’d start growing more crops to fill the gaps in our food supply. Livestock-related gas emissions would drop by 70%.
But what would happen to all those farm animals? With no demand for grilled chicken and roast beef, billions of animals would be slaughtered or abandoned. Some animals, like sheep and pigs, might be able to return to the wild, but their numbers would drop due to predators.
Others though, like broiler chickens, couldn’t survive in the wild as they are so far removed from their ancestors. Their best chance might be in sanctuaries where they would be taken care of until they die out.
Your local butcher would have to find another job. And so would millions of farmers. They could start growing more crops, or restoring forests. But on a large scale, rural communities that used to supply you with milk, eggs and meat would face significant unemployment. Developing countries who built their lives and trades around livestock would deal with major economic disruption.
But everyone would become a little bit healthier… Or would we? Adopting vegan diet doesn’t automatically make you a healthy eater. Vegans often miss out on vital nutrients. They often don’t get enough calcium, iron, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.
Since meat, eggs and cheese would no longer be served as a perfect source of protein, you’d have to eat a lot of soy, beans and lentils. But with a proper diet, we’d suffer less from coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Global mortality rate would drop by up to 10%. This would mean 8 million less deaths per year and up to $1 trillion saved on healthcare and lost working days annually.
But not in developing countries, where over 2 billion people already face massive undernourishment. Without meat, for them, things wouldn’t get healthier, they’d get worse. Having the entire world go vegan might be a little extreme. But keeping foods produced by animals in our diet means we will eventually have to deal with the gas emissions.
Luckily for those hooked on meat, clean solutions to reduce emissions from the livestock industry already exist. All that’s left is to implement them.
What about you? Would you say “no” to your meatball pasta tonight?
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