Why Going Plant-Based Is the Most Sustainable Thing You Can Do
A plant-based lifestyle is one of the most important ways you can help reduce the effects of climate change — here's how!
Meat and other animal products are responsible for nearly half of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions produced in the U.S. It's no surprise, then, with climate change on the rise, that climate scientists are clamoring for a reduction in consumption of animal products. Some studies estimate that cutting out meat and dairy consumption could reduce your carbon footprint by two-thirds, with one Oxford scientist dubbing a vegan diet "the single biggest way" to reduce your impact on the planet.
It makes sense, when you think about it. Not only does farming animals for meat and dairy require space, it also requires huge amounts of feed and water. According to one study by UCLA, one gallon of milk requires a whopping 1,950 gallons of water to produce. Plants, on the other hand, are far less demanding. According to a research review in the journal Science, even the lowest-impact, most sustainable beef is responsible for six times more greenhouse gases — 36 times more land use — than plant-based pea protein.
"Overall, plants are a more efficient food source in that we can 1) 'produce more, with less' and 2) the rate at which we can grow plants and turn them into food is much faster compared to the time it requires to raise animals and allow them to mature until they are fit to become a food source," explains Lindsey Kane, RD and Director of Nutrition at Sun Basket.
How to Make a Meaningful Impact
But just because going plant-based is good for the environment doesn't mean that you need to fully eradicate meat from your diet to make a difference. Unlike a vegan diet, a "plant-based" diet "does not translate to '100 percent plants,'" explains Kane.
"It simply means following an eating pattern in which the base is predominantly composed of plants (fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds) while still allowing for the option to include some animal proteins (meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, seafood)."
By eradicating the extreme, all-or-nothing mentality of most diets, plant-based eating is a welcoming, inclusive way of making strides towards greater sustainability.
"Think of it this way," says Daiya's Director of Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability Nicola Shaw. "If you eat one less burger a week, it's like taking your car off the road for 320 miles. Now imagine doing that for weeks straight! Any change that someone makes is a move in the right direction."
"We need many people making small intentional changes rather than a handful of people being 'perfect,'" explains Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition and author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook: Over 100 Recipes for a Healthy Life. "That is to say, increasing the ratio of plants a person consumes along with making other environmentally-friendly changes in their lifestyle can have a meaningful impact."
5 Ways to a More Sustainable, Plant-Based Diet
With that in mind, here are five great ways to take strides towards a more plant-based – and more sustainable – diet.
1. Give Veggies More Real Estate
When you imagine a traditional dinner plate, it probably is about half-filled with meat with the other half divided between vegetables and a starchy side like pasta, rice, or potatoes. Instead, flip these ratios. Give half (or more!) of your plate over to delicious veggies like roasted green beans or deconstructed ratatouille alongside a smaller portion of meat. This style of plate will also probably allow you to afford higher-quality proteins, which will also reduce your carbon footprint considerably.
2. Choose Lower-Impact Animal Products
Not all animal products are created alike when it comes to carbon emissions. Beef, for example, is one of the worst culprits, whereas dairy, eggs, and sustainably caught fish are much less taxing. Chicken, according to one study, has half of the carbon footprint of beef!
Buying from local producers cuts down on the impact of transportation, too. When you're consuming animal proteins, try to buy them direct from the farmer to cut out the middle man, reducing the cost of a higher-quality – and more sustainable – product.
3. Shop Local
While you're at it, choose local purveyors for your produce, too! Buying sustainable, organic, fresh produce might seem expensive, but it can actually be very economical if you opt to buy from smaller producers.
"Shopping locally at farmers markets when possible, taking part in a CSA (community supported agriculture), purchasing produce in season as well as purchasing frozen produce can make following a plant-based diet more cost-effective," explains Feller.
And eating local and seasonal produce also makes your diet more exciting, as it evolves over the course of the year.
4. Make Your Mondays Meatless
In an effort to reduce your meat consumption, try picking just one day a week to enjoy a delicious vegetarian or vegan meal. In recent years, Monday has become the nationwide day to forego meat, but you could pick any day you like to sample recipes like lentil soup, pulled jackfruit, or vegan lasagna. Whether you're opting for Monday or not, try to stick to the same day every week: it will help you form a habit and make you less likely to forget to integrate your meatless meals into your weekly routine.
5. Get creative.
Changing the way you eat can seem daunting, at first, but soon you'll see that it's actually fairly easy to integrate plants into your diet. Consider simple swaps, like coconut milk in place of cow's milk, or nutritional yeast in place of cheese. And try to think outside the box.
"Eating plant-based is more than just having a salad," says Eat JUST, Inc.'s Joshua Hyman, Chief of Staff for R&D at JUST. "If you like pasta, you can have pasta, you just don't have to add any meat or butter to your meal. You can use olive oil and fresh vegetables and spices. Understanding spices and herbs to make your food more flavorful is a great way to start."
"You may not realize it, but by committing to eat more plant-based you've just opened an entire new world of foods for yourself," says Shaw. "Think about all the fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans you probably have never bothered to try before this. Now is your chance to explore and discover foods you haven't thought about trying."