Veganism’s complicated role in fighting the climate crisis

When University of Vermont junior Myla Judd decided to go vegan, she thought she was making the best decision for her health and the environment. 

“I was working on a sustainable agriculture farm at the time and formed a strong bond with all of the animals,” Judd said. “After watching so many documentaries about how destructive mass production farming is, I realized how evil the meat and dairy industry is.”

Accounting for roughly 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions — fumes in the earth’s atmosphere that trap heat and cause global warming — livestock has become agriculture’s largest source of climate change worldwide. Unfortunately, the U.S.’s appetite for meat is only increasing. Between 1961 and 2018, yearly meat production increased by 184% and is forecasted to rise an additional 14% by 2030, according to the United Nations.

Following a 2019 publication in the journal “Bioscience,” a global team of 11,000 scientists indicated that to slow the spread of climate change, the general public should aim to eat a plant-based diet and reduce their consumption of animal products.

“At the time, I would have said that veganism was sustainable for me and believed I was getting the right nutrients and proteins to be healthy,” Judd said. “But it wasn’t financially supportable or doable with my lifestyle. I had no energy and was always tired.”

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Oxford, vegan and vegetarian diets could reduce food costs by one third. However this study did not factor in processed meat replacements or eating at restaurants.

Despite livestock’s undeniable role in fueling the climate crisis, the scientific literature regarding the significance of cutting or limiting meat from your diet remains mixed. A 2018 study stated that a vegetarian diet would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3% per person. However, a University of Oxford study says that giving up meat and dairy can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by 73%. 

“Veganism itself is not necessarily a good thing,” said Neil Blair, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “For instance, rice is a major source of methane too, so two of the major sources of methane from anthropogenic sources happen to be rice and cattle.” 

While vegan and vegetarian diets may not directly harm the environment, their agricultural systems do. Fruit, vegetable and nut production requires mass amounts of water to grow, risking freshwater depletion. Crops like rice, a staple of many vegan diets, are responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“There are options in any of our diets, whether you’re vegetarian or omnivore or a bacon eater to eat more sustainably, but no one of these is automatically sustainable, particularly when you’re trying to feed eight billion people,” Blair said. 

However, with the main drivers of climate change residing in collective enterprises such as power grids and the transportation system, many call the individual’s role in lessening the effects of the climate crisis into question. 

“So many people don’t want to do anything because one person’s not going to make a difference,” Blair said. “The only thing I can say is that change has got to start somewhere. Every movement started with an individual who managed to convince others.” 

Still, some, like DePaul professor Barbara Willard, remain optimistic. 

“A vegan diet can significantly improve reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” Willard said. “This is very well-established.”

While limiting your meat intake will not have the same effect on reducing climate change as planting a new forest or restoring old ones, individuals can be part of the solution rather than the problem. One 2019 study in the journal of Scientific Reports found that if every individual in the U.S. reduced their meat consumption by 25%, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 1%. 

“Most of it [reducing greenhouse gas emissions] is going to be at the legislative level. but the major thing that we can do, one, is to have one fewer child or no children, but the biggest thing to reduce your impact on the Earth is to not eat meat and dairy,” Willard said. 

While a single individual’s contribution through dietary changes may be relatively small in the long run, it is clear that no social change occurred overnight or by one person.

“Pursuing veganism taught me a lot about how what we eat affects the planet, but also the importance of letting yourself eat freely and prioritizing your own health and well-being,” Judd said.