Is the Vegan Diet really that Green?

A chicken being raised Broken Fork Farm

photographer:  Melanie Hamblen 

The popularity  of veganism in America has skyrocketed over the past fifteen years. Currently, there are 9.6 million Americans, three percent of the population, following a plant-based diet – a staggering 300% increase over the past fifteen years. It is not surprising, the vegetable-heavy diet has become a household name, and vegan-friendly substitutes are becoming increasingly accessible. There is a multitude of reasons why someone might decide to adopt the vegan lifestyle, a common one is that it is better for the environment.  This can be true, but only to an extent.

All too often we fail to acknowledge how a vegan diet impacts the environment, the carbon footprint of the no dairy, no meat regime is not nonexistent. Veganism can encourage people to consume more industrially grown fruit and vegetables and meat substitutes based on soy, corn, and grains while demeaning sustainable, local farming. We fail to realize how useful grazing livestock can be in reducing environmental concerns, and how livestock can benefit the environment when they are raised on organic, local farms.  

How Can Veganism Be Bad for the Environment? 

A plant-based diet introduces a plethora of ways the environment could be harmed when the produce is coming from a factory farm. Firstly, Vegan diets drive up the demand for high inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides used for produce. These chemicals find their way into the soil, air, rainfall, and water. This accounts for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is damaging to ecosystems. Secondly, Vegetables and fruits rely on using genetically modified seeds. Using genetically modified seeds decreases the biodiversity of seeds. Thirdly, Produce is most often imported to grocery stores in America from long distances, and in many cases overseas. This carries the weight of a lot of carbon emissions as a result of food miles. Lastly, there are many agricultural practices, stemming from mechanization,  that commonly take place to produce vegetables and fruits that damage the environment. Tilling, for example, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the air and can accelerate erosion. These are only a few of the ways a strictly vegan diet can inadvertently harm the environment. They combine to differing degrees depending on the crop. 

How can Animal Farming Benefit the environment? 

  The plight of environmental issues is not fueled by the consumption of meat, but instead by the way the meat we consume is raised. Melaine Hamblen, a member of Franklin’s town council and the owner of both Broken Fork Farm and Franklin Agway, has been a huge advocate for the farming community. She believes that “If you know who and how the animal is raised, [vegans] might change their mind, especially with local farms.” Many of the environmental concerns vegans have over animal products only apply to factory farms. For example, the methane emissions of grazing livestock are 70% less than those of livestock in intensive animal farming.  “I think the average person knows very little about where their food comes from.” We know a lot about how livestock impacts the environment because it has been extensively researched, but the environmental impact of veganism has not been examined nearly as much. The food system is not binary; we cannot villainize vegan diets or omnivore diets. Both can have advantages and disadvantages to the environment. “ We, as a nation, need to look at the number of calories and nutrients produced with the least amount of harm done to the environment.” 

Why is livestock on small farms necessary for the environment?

Livestock, when they are grazing, can halt erosion and become a necessary part of an ecosystem that benefits the environment. A 2015 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that, internationally, 25 to 40 tons of topsoil are lost every year due to erosion. This is the result of plowing and the intensive farming of crops. To curb erosion, and the profusion of environmental threats that come along with it, we must let land used to grow crops return to its natural, uncultivated state when it is not being used as farmland. This state can then be used as grazing pasture for livestock. Natural grazing is the root of soil restoration, biodiversity, water quality, and flood mitigation and, in turn, a solution for the impending threat of climate change. Natural grazing cannot be achieved unless livestock is a component of a farm. Therefore, polyculture farms that harvest both crops and livestock are arguably paving the path towards sustainable agriculture. Unquestionably, we need to be eating less meat and the unethical practice of intensive farming of grain-fed livestock must come to an end. Nevertheless, veganism, for the sake of the environment, is not the solution.