In 2010 the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) published a report titled “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” that tackles the complex issue of sustainable development including fossil fuel consumption and land use (report). However, one passage of the 100+ page report garnered particular attention from the media: “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products [emphasis added].”
The British newspaper The Guardian took the above passage and published a story that begins “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger.” For those unfamiliar with veganism, it is a strict form of vegetarianism that excludes not only the eating of meat, but also any food derived from animals such as milk, cheese, and eggs. Vegans – people that follow a vegan diet – often decide to follow a vegan diet for ethical reasons as a protest for animal rights and welfare. Other people are vegan for health reasons or to minimize the environmental impact of their food consumption (the same rationale as the UNEP’s report). Interestingly, the UNEP report never uses the term “vegan” to describe its conclusions in the actual report.
While The Guardian probably used the term “vegan” for sensationalism the environmental impact of an animal intensive diet is quite severe. The same article quotes the lead author of the UNEP study, “Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals.” Indeed, it takes lots of resources to produce meat. For instance, it can take up to 16 pounds of grain and 4,000-18,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef according the U.S. Geological Survey. Thus, it is no wonder that the UNEP sees reducing reliance on animal products as a key focus for sustainable development.
It seems clear that the Earth cannot support an American-style, meat-centric diet for the entire global population without creating great stress on the natural resources. Furthermore, the factory farming of meat and the monoculture of feed grain concentrates these environmental impacts from manure and fertilizer run-off. Popular author and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals, his non-fiction account of factory farming, states the concerns voiced in the UN report succinctly “Someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.”