Although mention of the word “vegan” can bring up disturbing images of proselytizing protestors armed with signs and graphic visuals of animal cruelty, people often overlook the environmental impacts of reducing their consumption of animal products.
Prof. David Wolfe, plant science, revealed his insight on the crippling carbon footprint of the meat industry, and what a plant-based diet would entail for the environment.
“A lot of the major meat producers in this country are coming from fairly large operations and corporate farms [where] the carbon footprint is quite a bit higher,” Wolfe said. “The animals are all confined in one place — it could be very far away from where the crops are grown and are then transported to feed the animals.”
According to Wolfe, the excessive amounts of fossil fuels utilized in the production and transport of these crops alone have a significant environmental impact. Ruminant animals, like cattle, have the added detriment of methanogens — microbes required for digestion that release methane, a notorious greenhouse gas.
However, Wolfe explained that the extent of environmental damage caused by the consumption of meat all depends on where it’s coming from. According to Wolfe, farmers’ sloppy application of nitrogen fertilizers can be especially detrimental for local ecology, and is a major culprit of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Excessive nitrogen applications leads to excessive amounts of nitrous oxide emissions, [which is] about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a molecule-by-molecule basis,” Wolfe said. “There’s a lot of guidance on the judicious placement of the nitrogen fertilizer, but [farmers] don’t all take the time to do that.”
However, farmers’ use of sustainable practices like rotational grazing and the cultivation of specific carbon storing plant species makes a big difference.
According to Wolfe, if beef is produced using a rotational, meadowland grazing system, the cost of transporting crops to feed animals is eliminated. This is also a more carbon-neutral method of meat production.
“Perennial plants in these systems store tremendous [amounts of] carbon in their roots and compensate for the carbon footprint of the methane emissions from the animals,” Wolfe said.
Purchasing minimally packaged meat directly from local farmers who prioritize sustainable agriculture and free grazing all add up, Wolfe said.
“What’s interesting about agriculture and meat production systems is that they not only think about reducing their emissions, but they can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, by nature of what the industry is, and store it in our soils and trees,” Wolfe said.
Although these modes of sustainable agricultural and meat production are definitely consequential, Wolfe praised the environmental implications of vegetarianism and veganism.
“If [the world] adopted a vegetarian diet we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by a third to a half,” Wolfe said.
“Eliminating all meat from your diet – you’re doing a lot more. [You are removing] an added trophic level to our food system. In most cases we are growing crops that we … could be eating directly, and instead we’re feeding it to animals, and finally it gets to us,” Wolfe said. This added step in the system creates inefficiency and energy is wasted.
So, what if the whole world went vegan?
Wolfe was realistic. “There are places in the world that are somewhat food insecure, [where] they do not have arable land to grow many food crops effectively. But, they can raise animals … So, in some places you need some meat consumption,” Wolfe said.
“[However,] if we simply went to a diet that constrained meat consumption to a ‘Mediterranean diet’ — which would be meat consumption once or twice a week, and some fish consumption once or twice, and the rest vegetarian — that too would have a significant impact. There are ways to get part-way there,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe further noted his optimism regarding climate change, citing efforts at the local, state, and national level.
“Despite things you might hear from the executive branch, the USDA is still funding projects that are focused on sustainability and reducing the footprint of agriculture on the environment,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe himself was involved in a congressional committee on sustainable agriculture solutions and technology, as well as the creation of Adapt-N, an app guiding farmers with their use of nitrogen fertilizers.
Wolfe further emphasized the power of the consumer. “All of the foods you’re buying … taking the time to find out the sources of that food, and doing what you can to buy food from farmers who are doing things sustainably [can help immensely],” Wolfe said.