The United Nations (UN) has advised that a global shift towards plant-based food will counteract the worst effects of climate change. Is going vegan really going to help in the fight against climate change? Well, actually...the UN says that land-use practices that favor plant growth vs. animal grazing, as well as sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices, are among the top climate change mitigation solutions. Sustainable agriculture creates environmentally-friendly carbon sinks; turning farms into thriving ecological lands that sequester atmospheric carbon while producing crops for food, and plants that increase farms' biodiversity.
Sustainable and regenerative agriculture
The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out with a report about how the global community must switch now to sustainable land-use in food production. All countries and industries worldwide must adopt sustainable agriculture practices, as the world begins transitioning to more sustainable food consumption habits - in order to effectively fight climate change.
For more information about sustainable agriculture practices, permaculture, and reforestation, please see>>>
(A quick note about the terms in this article; all regenerative agriculture is sustainable agriculture, but not all sustainable agriculture techniques and practices are considered the same as specific practices of regenerative agriculture
Animal grazing is a much less sustainable land-use practice than land used for regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture doesn't necessarily mean that absolutely no animals are raised on farms for food (as an immediate global dietary shift seems to be highly unlikely) - rather simply that farms focus on "well-managed grazing practices [that] stimulate improved plant growth, and increased soil [health]" - and focus on agriculture done with the implementation of other sustainable farming methods.
Here are some key points from Project Drawdown in defining regenerative agriculture:
Regenerative agricultural practices include:
- no tillage,
- diverse cover crops,
- in-farm fertility (no external nutrients),
- no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and
- multiple crop rotations.
Cover crops, no till or low till farming, crop rotation, and polyculture (vs. monoculture) - are a few techniques for sustainable agriculture practices that increase soil health. Cover crops refer to a variety of crops grown on farmland during off-seasons in order to maintain soil health; polyculture is also a practice of introducing a variety of crops, including multiple species of plants, on farmland, in this case - year-round. Biodiversity of a farm's crops, a farm's plants, and other ecosystems on the farm, as well as proper soil nutrition; deter pests, maintain healthy ecosystems, and create biodiversity on the farm. Sustainable farms enhance environmental quality and agricultural economy through enhancement of natural resources. For example, carbon farming is a sustainable agriculture practice that maintains healthy soils and is common practice in most organic farming. Practices to maintain soil health are found in regenerative agriculture, as well as permaculture. A sustainable farm must focus a substantial amount of time year-round on healthy soil nutrition to help maintain long-term quality growth.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN believes that raising animals for food is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” This problem is due to deforestation to clear land in order for cattle to graze; and because land-use designated for animals is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) than all of the world's transport systems combined. The solution is for the global agriculture community to focus, and to be encouraged to maintain focused efforts on, more on sustainable, regenerative farming practices. The global transition to sustainable agriculture would be expedited if the global farming community was simply catering to a majority organic plant-based diet in the consumer food market.
One solution that has emerged as a promising contender recently, is for governments to simply subsidize farmers, through tax breaks or direct payments, for farmers to adopt sustainable agriculture practices such as carbon farming and implementation of cover crops during off-seasons. Afterall, farmers that adopt sustainable agriculture practices are helping reduce global GHGs and fight climate change, by sequestering carbon through carbon sinks created through otherwise conventional farmland that has been transformed into a thriving, climate-saving, ecosystem.
One other possible solution; and one that is doomed to remain politically unpopular for obvious reasons (as the vast majority of the world's population has a meat and dairy intensive diet) - is a carbon tax on meat. It takes on average 11 times more fossil fuels to produce a calorie of animal protein than to produce a calorie of grain protein. That’s a considerable amount of GHGs released per calorie. So much so that Chatham House, otherwise known as The Royal Institute of International Affairs, has called for a carbon tax on meat to help combat climate change. In fact globally, raising cows for food ranks only behind the United States and China (as a GHG contributing segment of the global economy); and raising cattle for food is the #1 source of GHGs from agriculture globally.
Going vegan doesn’t only help the bigger picture vis-à-vis reducing GHG emissions by helping in the global transition to sustainable, plant-based agriculture to fill the demand of a plant-based consumer diet in the global fight against climate change - it helps to reduce your carbon footprint in a different way, as well. An Oxford study published in the journal Climate Change, found that the diets of meat eaters who ate more than 3.5 ounces of meat a day – roughly the size of a pack of cards – generate 15.8 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent each day compared to vegetarians - 8.4 pounds, and vegans - 6.4 pounds. This is because the process of raising livestock for food on farms itself is carbon-intensive; and also because the majority of global deforestation is just to create land for cattle to graze.
The average meat-eater has a much higher carbon footprint than people who adopt a plant-based diet - 50-54% higher than vegetarians, and between 99-102% higher than vegans. Of course there are other ways for individuals in society to contribute to lower emissions, but research shows that, as Dr. Fredrik Hedenus of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden said, “reducing meat and dairy consumption is key to bringing agricultural pollution down to safe levels."
Raising cattle for meat and dairy ranks close to the top of the list as a segment of the global economy contributing to greenhouse gases (mostly in the form of methane emitted from grazing cattle). There are a variety of innovative ways to reduce methane emissions from grazing cattle. However, transitioning to a plant based diet now is considered one of the best ways to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, and to reduce one's personal contribution to the problem of GHGs. A study from the University of Chicago posits that eating less meat (or none at all) is more effective at reducing one's personal responsibility for GHGs than changing from a conventional car to a hybrid.
According to PETA - “…the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shown that animal agriculture is globally the single largest source of methane emissions and that, pound for pound, methane is more than 28 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere. The use of manure storage and of manure being used as fertilizer for crops and feed, which then generates substantial amounts of nitrous oxide, contributes greatly to the greenhouse gases affecting the global warming crisis."
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, livestock accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The three most critical GHGs responsible for climate change are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide - and together they cause the majority of climate change issues. Methane is a gas that can be produced from stockpiling of animal and human sewage, manure used as fertilizer, as well animal’s personal “gas emissions [for ex. cow burps and farts]”. Methane is a potent GHG released from livestock in dangerous quantities exacerbating climate change; and is closely followed in significance by nitrous oxide in unsustainable agriculture practices.
Nitrous oxide is roughly 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and methane is to 40 times more potent than CO2; but CO2 is the most well-known GHG because it’s the longest lasting, and most significant GHG in terms of quantity of CO2 released in the common industries tracked for GHG emissions (energy generation, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, buildings). Agriculture is the largest man-made source of nitrous oxide, with the meat, dairy, and other animal-based food industries - contributing to 65% of worldwide nitrous oxide emissions,. Nitrous oxide emissions are primarily direct emissions from fertilized agricultural stock, and manure, as well as indirect emissions from leaching of fertilizers and pesticides; which is when rainwater causes part of the nitrogen in fertilizers and pesticides to leach into groundwater and eventually into rivers.
In basic terms, societies should begin to try and transition from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet today; and the global farming community absolutely must switch now to sustainable agriculture practices, in order for the global fight against climate change to be truly effective. Food consumption habits greatly affect land-use/ agricultural practices. Project Drawdown ranks having the global community transition to a plant-based diet as one of the most effective climate mitigation strategies, albeit one that has gained very little global momentum (as eating meat and dairy remains very popular worldwide). For reference, around 3% of the population in the United States is vegetarian or vegan, and the agriculture sector is responsible for 9% of GHGs from the United States. The U.K. is a lot better than the U.S. as far as the vegetarian portion of the population, with estimates that as much as a quarter of the population of the United Kingdom will be vegetarian by 2025.
Dietary consumer choices directly influence land-use and agriculture. One solution to the global climate crisis is to focus on changing cultural dietary choices and, in turn, help foster the transition to sustainable global land-use/ agriculture practices to effectively fight climate change. Project Drawdown estimates that transitioning the global agriculture systems to sustainable practices can reduce global CO2 emissions by over 20 gigatons, stating that “bringing that carbon back home through regenerative agriculture is one of the greatest opportunities to address human and climate health, along with the financial well-being of farmers.”
Additionally, Project Drawdown ranks implementing sustainable agriculture practices, such as regenerative annual cropping, and transitioning the global community to sustainable land-use, turning farmland into land sinks, as top solutions in their list of most effective ways to fight climate change. Project Drawdown also ranks managed grazing as a top climate solution; offering the following key points-
Managed grazing imitates herbivores, addressing two key variables: how long livestock grazes a specific area and how long the land rests before animals return. There are three managed-grazing techniques that improve soil health, carbon sequestration, water retention, and forage productivity:
- Improved continuous grazing adjusts standard grazing practices and decreases the number of animals per acre.
- Rotational grazing moves livestock to fresh paddocks or pastures, allowing those already grazed to recover.
- Adaptive multi-paddock grazing shifts animals through smaller paddocks in quick succession, after which the land is given time to recover.
Here's a brief snippet from an article by The Union of Concerned Scientists on sustainable agriculture:
Environmental sustainability in agriculture means good stewardship of the natural systems and resources that farms rely on. Among other things, this involves:
- Building and maintaining healthy soil [with low till or no till farming, crop rotation, use of cover crops during off-seasons, polyculture vs. monoculture]
- Managing water wisely
- Minimizing air, water, and climate pollution
- Promoting biodiversity
There’s a whole field of research devoted to achieving these goals: agroecology, the science of managing farms as ecosystems. By working with nature rather than against it, farms managed using agroecological principles can avoid damaging impacts without sacrificing productivity or profitability." FROM - ucsusa.org/what-sustainable-agriculture
And here's a snippet from World Resources Institute on governments subsidizing sustainable agriculture for farmers willing to adopt practices that actively sequester carbon on farmland (through carbon farming, cover crops, and/ or another sustainable farming practice discussed above) -
"To both feed the world and solve climate change, the world needs to produce 50% more food in 2050 compared to 2010 while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds. While government funding has an important role to play, a new World Bank report found that agricultural subsidies are currently doing little to achieve these goals, but have great potential for reform.
What is needed to mitigate the 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions contributed by global agriculture, including emissions from land use change? The good news is that many opportunities exist to boost agricultural productivity to provide more food on existing agricultural land while reducing emissions.
Opportunity one is to increase natural resource efficiency by producing more food per hectare, per animal and per kilogram of fertilizer and other chemicals used. Opportunity two is to put in place measures to link these productivity gains to protection of forests and other native habitats. Opportunity three is to pursue innovations, because reaching climate goals for agriculture — just like for energy use — requires new technologies and approaches.
Overall, governments around the world should redirect more agricultural funding to focus on mitigation and the synergies between reducing emissions and producing more food. A first step toward a sustainable food future is to make better use of the large financial support governments are already providing." FROM - wri.org/redirecting-agricultural-subsidies-sustainable-food-future