Why the shift to a plant-based society is inevitable

Updated: Mar 8, 2021


From public health, to climate change, the facts are undeniable: The pros of switching to a more plant-based society far outweigh the cons, and could be our best hope in preventing future disasters.

 

Climate Change


Undoubtedly the biggest existential threat to humanity, climate change is like an avalanche. The warning signs can be spotted, but once initial movement has started, it gains more and more momentum in a positive feedback loop until it becomes unstoppable. In a similar way, if we don't take more action against climate change, the impacts will happen more frequently, and become more devastating.


Anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases have already caused an average global temperature increase of about 1.2˚C [1], and while this may seem small, it is a very rapid change in a very short period of geological time. Permafrost regions in the Arctic may contain up to four times more CO2 than humans have emitted since the Industrial revolution in 1750 [2], and as temperatures continue to increase, this permafrost will melt at an increasing rate, releasing the carbon dioxide and methane trapped within, which will then cause further warming at unprecedented rates, leading to increased sea level rise, fish-less oceans, droughts, wildfires, and just an all round bad time for everyone and everything.



It's clear that we urgently need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, as well as actively remove the CO2 that we have injected into the atmosphere.

Every industry on the planet needs to play its part, and with the food and agriculture industry making up over a quarter of all greenhouse emissions [3], and the meat industry producing more emissions than all cars, planes, trains, and ships combined [4] it is one that requires urgent reevaluation and change.


Studies by Oxford University researchers have conclusively shown that excluding animal products from your diet is the "single biggest way" to reduce your impact on the planet, with even the lowest emission animal products exceeding those of plant alternatives [5]. The authors stress that "avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy"[6] .


The diagram shows that CO2 emissions from most plant-based products are as much as 10-50 times lower than most animal-based products.
Greenhouse gas emissions of different food types.

Currently, 43% of the world's desert and ice free land is used for agriculture, and of this land a staggering 83% is used by meat, dairy, eggs, and aquaculture production despite only providing 37% of our protein and 18% of our calorie intake.

A completely plant-based diet would reduce the amount of land needed by 76%, and reduce agricultural emissions by 49%. On top of this, natural regrowth of vegetation on the free land could remove 8.1 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year for 100 years, about 30% of CO2 emissions per year.


To put it bluntly, shifting to more plant based agriculture is one of the most important and necessary steps we must take to reduce our emissions, deforestation, and biodiversity loss.

 


 

Health


The health benefits of a plant-based diet are well accepted in modern science [7], and documentaries like "The Gamechangers" have helped spread awareness of the fitness benefits of a whole food plant-based diet. It is also now widely accepted that you can get every nutrient you need on a plant-based diet [8].


In the UK alone, the most common causes of death are heart disease, cancer, stroke, and lung disease [9], and in many cases, these are caused by poor diet - specifically intake of cholesterol and heme iron, and are therefore preventable diseases. New dietary guidelines are acknowledging this fact, for example the 2020 - 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending that the dietary intake of cholesterol and trans fats should be as low as possible [10]. Luckily, a vegan diet contains no dietary cholesterol whatsoever, and a whole food plant based diet is the only diet shown to clinically reverse and prevent heart disease, as well as reducing blood pressure, inflammation, and stroke risk [11].


By the year 2050, a plant based diet could prevent 8.1 million deaths per year globally, and in turn could save up to $1,000 billion per year in healthcare costs [12].


Without mentioning COVID-19 too much, it is well known that the cramped conditions we force animals into enables diseases to spread rapidly between the population, and to other species, including our own. If we continue to gamble with the evolutionary nature of diseases like this, it is only a matter of time before we cause a new pandemic, which could be much worse than the one we are currently in.


Additionally, animal agriculture is recognised as one of the leading causes of antibiotic resistance [13], as ~80% of sold antibiotics are used to increase growth and prevent infections in animal 'livestock'. This overuse of antibiotics encourages resistant strains of bacteria to emerge, and spread to humans, turning previously treatable infections into a life or death battle, and putting much more strain on healthcare services.

 


 

Ethics


The ethics are quite simple really. If we can thrive and get every nutrient we need without animal products, then the mass exploitation and killing of animals for food is totally unnecessary, and fundamentally unethical. Cognitive dissonance is a real issue here, a brilliant example being the attempts of people in Western cultures to boycott the 2018 South Korean Winter Olympics due to dog meat farms, with some Olympians being praised as 'heroes' for rescuing dogs from these farms. Yet in the Western countries, people attempting to free other animals from the exact same conditions are considered criminals, when the only difference between the dogs and animals like pigs, lambs, and cows is our perception. They are all conscious beings, with studies showing that pigs are as intelligent as dogs [14].


The truly horrifying statistic that 60% of all mammal life on Earth is 'livestock' really puts into perspective the terrible impact we are having on our ecology, causing the loss of 83% of wild mammal species. The numbers are even more worrying for birds: 70% are poultry, and just 30% are wild bird species [15].


Our continued abuse and destruction of the wildlife and environment will ultimately cause billions of deaths and the fall of our civilisation if we do not act to reverse the damage we have caused. This is why I believe that if humanity is going to survive as a species, becoming a plant-based civilisation is not a choice, but a change that must be made.

 


 

References


[1] https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

[2] https://www.sciencealert.com/study-reveals-thawing-permafrost-is-rusting-the-arctic-s-crucial-carbon-sink

[3] https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/03/16/1523119113.full

[4] https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/climate-change/global-warming/global-co2-emissions/story

[5] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987

[6] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/veganism-environmental-impact-planet-reduced-plant-based-diet-humans-study-a8378631.html

[7] https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/helpingyoueatwell/plant-based-diets.html?start=1

[8] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-vegan-diet/

[9] https://www.letsgetchecked.com/articles/top-5-causes-of-death-in-the-uk/

[10] https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf

[11] https://www.pcrm.org/health-topics/heart-disease

[12] https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/news/201603-plant-based-diets/

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3234384/

[14] https://www.vox.com/21363401/pigs-dogs-smart-animal-intelligence

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study

 


 

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