Plant-based diets are good for you, good for animals, and good for the Earth.
Well-planned plant-based diets are healthful partly because they are low in cholesterol (found only in animal products) and in saturated fat. Plant-based diets that contain little or no animal products appear to be especially beneficial, and have the support of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada.
The following quotes are from: ADA Position Paper (2003) "Vegetarian Diets," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 103, Issue 6, Pages 748-765:
"It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."
"Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence."
Although livestock in developing nations can provide valuable nutrients for impoverished people who are malnourished due to insufficient calories and variety in their diets, well-planned plant-based meals can be used instead to improve nutrition. Plant-based foods may in many instances be advantageous for human health because livestock production can divert resources away from people who are the poorest. Whenever grain is grown in, or purchased by, developing nations to feed to livestock for the wealthy, then people with low income suffer as the livestock compete with them for resources they need to survive: fresh water and arable land that could be used to grow food-grade grains, legumes and vegetables for the populace. The greenhouse gas emissions due to the livestock industry also increase climate change, causing floods and droughts that raise the frequency of crop failures that further threaten people's survival.
Supporting the shift to plant-based diets can help fight world hunger in several ways. (1) When people in developed nations eat plant-based diets, which are less expensive than animal-based diets, more money is available to fund programs that increase food self-sufficiency in developing nations. (2) When wealthy people in developing nations demand more grains and legumes and fewer animal products, they encourage local farmers to grow grain and legumes for human consumption, which keeps food-grade grains and legumes plentiful and increases the income and nutritional status of farming families who are able to sell part of their crop. (3) In both developed and developing nations, reducing the use of grains and legumes as livestock feed would help counterbalance the rising price of grains and legumes caused by a greater demand for these commodities, thus keeping them affordable for people with low incomes.
According to The World Food Problem (2004), by H. Leathers and P. Foster, "Complete elimination of animal products from the diets of all people in the developing world would increase calories per day in the developing world 120-180 calories." This would "make substantial inroads into the undernutrition problem" because "in countries with an average calorie deficit, 250 calories per person per day would erase the deficit. Two hundred and fifty calories is about the equivalent of a peanut butter sandwich" (pp. 274 and 339).
Although most people are taught as children to "Be kind to animals," this lesson is often forgotten at meal times. Non-human animals carry the burden of the human desire for animal products. In order to satisfy the demand for animal products that are cheap enough for people to purchase regularly, livestock producers often keep costs low by confining animals in crowded buildings, and then debeaking or detailing the animals to prevent them from causing each other serious injury in response to their stressful conditions. Livestock animals often suffer stress and pain when they are transported and slaughtered. Finally, wild animal populations and species numbers are declining because people have severely reduced their natural habitat in order to have land for the billions of livestock animals raised and slaughtered each year. People also kill wild animals to prevent them from preying on livestock.
Our capacity for compassion and empathy underlies the effort to improve the lives of animals, both confined and wild. When humans treat other animals as commodities and food, depriving them of their ability to fulfill their own purposes, we cause harm that exists even if we ourselves cannot feel it. Bioethicists and philosophers alike have long pondered and critiqued the relationships between humans and non-human animals, and will likely continue to do so because the intentional exploitation and dismissive treatment of non-human animals is troubling for a species that often claims to value kindness, fairness, and protection of the weak.
The Center for Plant-Based Diet Development encourages consideration of both animal welfare and animal rights. Improving animal welfare involves working to understand what a particular animal needs to feel healthy, content, and comfortable, and to provide for those needs and wants, which usually include family and community connections, space, and interesting environments that allow novel experiences. Protecting animal rights involves identifying and respecting the rights that people feel other organisms should have to protect them from ourselves, such as the right to be free from confinement, neglect, torture, and slaughter. Many of these basic rights are the same as the rights that we extend to our fellow human beings and cherish the most for ourselves and those we love.
When people transition to or maintain a predominantly or fully plant-based well-planned diet, they help not only their health and the health of non-human animals, but also the health of the planet.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2006 report states that "the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global" (from "Livestock’s Long Shadow," www.virtualcentre.org/en/frame.htm). Worldwide, 33% of the total arable land is used to grow feed for livestock rather than food for people. When land used for grazing is included, "livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet." Livestock production is a major cause of topsoil erosion and reduced soil quality, fertilizer and pesticide pollution, water scarcity, global warming, and loss of biodiversity in the U.S. and around the world.
University of Chicago researchers Gidon Eschel and Pamela Martin have calculated that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by more than 6% if everyone in our country switched from the average American animal-based diet (with 28% of calories from animal sources) to a fully plant-based diet, of equal calories, ("Diet, Energy, and Global Warming," Earth Interactions, 2006, http://geosci.uchicago.edu). Converting from the average American animal-based diet to a fully plant-based diet reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1.49 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per person per year, and combats global warming more than does the switch from driving an average sedan to driving an ultra-efficient hybrid Prius, which reduces yearly emissions by 1.05 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
In Midwestern states such as Iowa and Wisconsin, where most crops "are used for animal feed, the pollution that may result from field crop production, including erosion and runoff and leaching of fertilizers and pesticides, can be viewed as an indirect result of livestock production" (from "Toward a Sustainable Agriculture," Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, University of Wisconsin, Madison, www.cias.wisc.edu).
As the rising middle classes in developing nations begin to desire and buy more animal products without understanding the negative effects on health and the environment caused by excessive consumption, then the environmental and medical problems associated currently with Western animal-based diets...heart disease, a variety of cancers, and obesity...become more prevalent, as is occurring in China.
Supporting plant-based diets in the U.S. and abroad in order to increase the demand for healthful plant-based foods can slow the current trend in developing nations toward increased consumption of animal products. The shift to plant-based diets will decrease the loss of soil fertility and resources that occurs when plants are grown to feed livestock rather than people, and land is damaged by overgrazing to satisfy a desire for flesh and milk based not on nutritional needs but on wants. Declining consumption of animal products in developed countries such as the U.S. will free land for other uses such as nature preserves and biofuel production, and enable the earth to feed the ever-expanding human population, which is expected to grow unless major advances in women's rights, education, and economic stability and equality occur.
As the world considers how to create a sustainable society, an option rarely put on the table for discussion is what people put on the table to eat. This should change because growing food-grade grains and legumes provides ecological and economic benefits for the farms and countries that produce them. Livestock production consumes vast amounts of energy and water and is a major cause of soil degradation (due to feed production and grazing), fertilizer and pesticide pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, and intensive confinement of animals. Transitioning to sustainable farming of food crops for humans rather than feed for livestock will allow farms and human societies to remain productive and prosperous for generations to come, while simultaneously sustaining and protecting the non-human animals with whom we share the planet.
Plant-Based Diets: Good for the Earth, Good for Animals, Good for You