If everyone became vegetarian, worldwide, would that actually be better for the environment, minimize harm to animal life, and improve human health?
That’s what we’re going to explore today.
We’ve been told that a vegetarian diet can feed the masses while optimizing our health, protecting the animals, and saving the planet. And who can fault those lofty goals? Being in full support of those ideals myself, I was vegetarian and then vegan for over 10 years.
And over that decade, as my health steadily and drastically declined, I took a deep dive into the science behind the impact of various types of human diets: the impact on human health, and the impact on the well-being of animal life, and our planet.
And what I’ve learned is that we’ve been led astray – not by our longings for a humane, healthy and sustainable diet and way of life, but by misunderstandings about the true impact of a plant-based diet on human health, animal welfare, and the environment.
Vegetarianism And The Environment
It’s reasonable to think that, since the global livestock industry is responsible for producing 14.5 percent of all human-activity-related greenhouse gas emissions, it would serve our planet better to simply stop eating meat.
But, according to PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), the removal of all livestock animals from agriculture would have a surprisingly minimal impact on total emissions, reducing agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by only 3 percent. (And, regenerative grazing can actually remove more GHGs than the livestock produce in their lifetime, creating a net positive impact on the environment.)
And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Something else to consider is that in order to produce enough food for everyone, transitioning to a global vegetarian diet would require a significant increase in the amount of land devoted to an already vast and destructive agricultural practice: monocropping.
Aptly named, monocropping is the practice of growing a single (mono) plant crop on a large tract of land, and is what’s used to grow the foods that make up the bulk of a vegetarian diet, grains and legumes. There are already over 450 million acres being monocropped in the U.S. alone, with only 9 species of plants making up ⅔ of all crop production; those numbers would, necessarily, get much worse if more people became vegetarian. And while monocropping can produce large amounts of (low quality) human food fairly efficiently, that production comes at a huge environmental cost:
Adverse Effects on Soil
Monocropping causes massive annual losses of top soil, which leads to a loss in overall soil health. This has enormous environmental impacts, as healthy soil is essential for a healthy environment. And the runoff of topsoil causes contamination of waterways, further damaging the environment.
Increased Water Usage
The amount of water required to sustain monocropping operations is at the top of the list of concerns. Many in support of vegetarianism will state the high water usage required for raising CAFO livestock as a reason to go vegetarian, but vegetarian food sources present similar problems. Since contemporary monocropping causes significant losses of topsoil with every harvest, the soil’s ability to retain moisture is continually damaged. As a result, increasing amounts of water are needed to sustain mono-crops, depleting our already-dwindling water supplies.
Loss of Biodiversity
Biodiversity (= many forms of life) is essential to a healthy environment, but the switch to monocropping destroys huge areas of natural habitat and greatly reduces the variety of living things in the vicinity, creating an unbalanced and more fragile ecosystem. And, again, that pesky loss of top soil causes problems in this arena as well, as it necessitates the use of a wide range of toxins such as insecticides, fungicides, pesticides, and GMOs to try to make up for the damage to the soil, all of which serve to poison the environment, animals, and us.
So if, as some advocate, all humans consumed a vegetarian diet, it would require a significant increase in the production of the foods that make up the bulk of a vegetarian diet, namely grains and legumes. And these would have to be grown as ever-larger swaths of monocrops in order to produce enough food to feed all humans, which would have an increasingly damaging effect on our environment. Following a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons does not, therefore, produce the desired result of improving the environment.
Regenerative, balanced agriculture is a much better approach to the problems that modern agriculture is currently exacerbating. Regenerative agriculture is a practice that seeks to restore the soil, animals and ecosystems to robust, natural health, to halt and reverse the negative environmental impacts of today’s agricultural practices.
Regenerative agriculture limits soil erosion, ensuring that farmland that was previously used for monocropping won’t continue damaging the environment as it has in the past. And regenerative farming also prevents us from having to cut down trees and clear more land for the monocropping that would be required to support a worldwide vegetarian human diet.
Unlike vegetarian diet foods, sustainably-raised, grass-fed animal products can support the environment through:
- net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
- regeneration of healthy soils and grasslands
- restoration of biodiverse ecosystems
- reduced pollution from soil runoff and from insecticides, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics
But how does vegetarianism impact animal welfare?
Vegetarianism and Animal Welfare
The environmental consequences of monocropping are quite evident, but what often goes undiscussed is the impact that monocropping can have on animal welfare. [Note: when I say “animal” here, I am talking about all forms of life, from mammals and birds, to fish and other aquatic life, to insects and pollinators.]
A popular phrase driving veganism and vegetarianism is “meat is murder”, but is the switch to a strictly plant-based diet as harm-free to all forms of life as many believe it or wish it to be?
Not so much. In fact, monocropping has a devastating effect on animal welfare.
Loss of Habitat
As discussed above, monocropping causes a significant loss of animal habitat, which leads to the suffering and death of many animals. Every living thing plays a role in the environment, and the eradication of diversity caused by monocropping means that wildlife pay with their lives while farmland dedicated to monocropping continues to expand and exacerbate this vicious cycle.
Because of the degradation of soil health caused by monocropping, synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers, as well as pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, must be used to keep crops growing. The problem? These poisons adversely affect all forms of life by contaminating food sources, the air, the ground, and the water. These toxins have been shown to:
- directly cause the acute, secondary, and chronic poisoning of animals, fish and birds
- eliminate nesting sites for birds, and destroy cover
- damage and kill pollinators such as bees
- and reduce the quantity, quality and access to food for all wildlife
all of which lead to an increase in suffering and an increased loss of many forms of life.
Because monocropping relies so heavily on these poisons, and monocropping would be required to expand to feed the world’s humans a vegetarian diet, the reality is that the switch to a vegetarian diet is actually much more harmful to animal welfare than we’ve been led to believe.
One issue with monocropping that isn’t widely discussed is the many animal deaths caused directly by mechanized farming, particularly tilling and harvesting. A paper published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics estimates that plant agriculture (which is dominated by grains and legumes) destroys over 7.3 million animal lives annually as a result of harvesting. And the expansion of farmland for monocropping to meet greater demands spurred by a global human vegetarian diet would extract an even heavier toll.
However, by shifting from monocropping to the widespread adoption of sustainable livestock and agricultural practices such as regenerative grazing, we can improve the environment while simultaneously improving the well-being of all forms of life, and reducing harm. And we do that, in large part, by voting with our wallets – focusing on buying foods sourced from responsible farmers.
Now that we’ve addressed the environmental consequences of going meatless, and also its impact on animal welfare, let’s look at how it affects our health.
Is Vegetarianism Beneficial To Your Health?
Over the past 50 years, we have been led to believe that a diet focused on fruits, vegetables, grains, and plant-based proteins is natural and great for us. But it turns out that there are major health issues with this way of eating, especially when followed exclusively and/or long term.
There are three main issues regarding the health effects of a vegetarian diet: nutritional deficiencies, inflammation, and a continued increase in insulin production over time, all of which lead to a whole host of health problems.
Vegetarianism frequently leads to various nutritional deficiencies, especially calcium, vitamin D, protein, B12, and iron. For example, research indicates that vegetarians are much more likely to have low iron stores than meat eaters. That’s because there are two types of dietary iron sources: heme iron sources and non-heme iron sources.
Heme iron sources are animal-based, and include red meats, poultry, and seafood. Heme irons are the best sources of iron because your body absorbs much more of the iron from them, from 30-40%. By contrast, the iron from non-heme iron sources such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts is much less bioavailable – we typically absorb less than 10% of plant-based non-heme iron.
Meanwhile, vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin that keeps blood and nerve cells healthy, and contributes to the creation of DNA. Plant foods have no vitamin B12, which means that those who consume a plant-based diet are more likely to have B12 deficiency, and need to make a special effort to get enough of this nutrient.
And then there’s protein. Not all proteins are created equal. Many people turn to plant-based diets believing they can provide them with the protein that they need while also encouraging a healthier way of life. However, this simply isn’t the case.
One of the most important things to understand is that animal proteins are of a much higher quality for our bodies than plant-based proteins. This is because animal proteins are more complete, and more utilizable by our bodies, and are thus more able to do for us what proteins are meant to do:
- Support the growth, repair and maintenance of all of our tissues, muscles, organs and bones
- Create the enzymes essential to the proper functioning of digestion, energy production, brain, muscle and nerve activity, and more
- Get made into hormones, which support nearly every process in our bodies
- Help balance our pH (acid/alkaline balance)
- Regulate fluid balance throughout our bodies
- Bolster immune health
- Transport and store nutrients
Plant proteins, on the other hand, are not as utilizable as animal proteins, in part because they are incomplete. Complete protein sources offer all nine essential amino acids our bodies must have for proper functioning and are incapable of producing themselves. Animal proteins provide us with the full range of essential amino acids, whereas plant-based proteins do not.
Plant-based protein sources also do not contain as much true protein as previously thought, or as much as animal-based sources do. Crude protein equals how much nitrogen is in a sample, and that used to be how total protein content in food was determined. But because there is some non-protein nitrogen in many protein sources, especially plant-based sources, crude protein is not an accurate measure of the amount of true (utilizable) protein in a food source. This means that the measure of how much actual (true) protein is in various plant-based protein sources has been historically overstated, and we’re not getting as much true protein from those sources as we once thought.
There is also the belief that all sources of plant-based protein are healthy. But most plant-based proteins are very inflammatory, largely because most of them are derived from inflammatory grains and legumes, and are then highly processed. And when they’re processed to make them into “burgers” and “sausages” and other meatless products, much of their nutritional value is stripped out of them, they become oxidized (meaning, they cause cell damage and accelerate aging), and sugar and other unhealthy ingredients are also often added, filling your plate with low quality “food” instead of the high-quality protein and other nutrient-dense foods that your body truly needs and wants.
And finally, there’s the insulin.
As discussed before, in order to get enough sustenance on a vegetarian or vegan diet, people typically rely heavily on grains and legumes. And these foods are not only highly inflammatory, but their high carbohydrate content causes elevated blood sugar and the stimulation of the release of the hormone insulin to bring down blood sugar.
And when your body is regularly and repeatedly exposed to high carbohydrate foods such as grains and legumes, it has to work overtime to clear that sugar out of your bloodstream (as it can do major damage when it sticks around). It must be converted quickly into energy, or stored as fat for later use as energy. When this overstimulation of insulin due to the consumption of high carbohydrate foods happens too often over time, insulin resistance develops.
Insulin resistance then leads to chronic higher blood sugar, and this puts you at risk for many serious and chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s (aka Type 3 diabetes). Keeping insulin levels low and reducing insulin stimulation are both crucial for avoiding chronic illness and achieving and maintaining optimal health.
Between the nutritional deficiencies and the need to rely on inflammatory, lower quality foods like grains and legumes, a fully plant-based (vegetarian or vegan) diet isn’t a wise course of action for human health.
But if a plant-based diet isn’t the key to better health, what is?
Focus On Anti-Inflammatory, Nutrient-Dense, Responsibly-Raised Animal Foods
While vegetarianism is often promoted as the pinnacle of social and environmental responsibility and physical health, the reality is that there are a lot of serious problems caused by this diet – health issues, animal welfare issues, and environmental issues.
The healthiest human diet, which is also the most humane and environmentally responsible, is one that focuses on the nutrient-dense, healing, anti-inflammatory foods provided by sustainably, responsibly raised, pastured animals, such as those at ButcherBox. These animal foods are deeply nutritious and nourishing to your body, and are essential for achieving and maintaining optimal health.
For info on sourcing the best pastured meats for your health-optimizing diet, see my article How To Find The Best Pastured Meats.
For an earnest look at the true environmental and animal impact of vegetarian and vegan diets, The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith is an eye-opening must-read.
Want to do a deeper dive into the science on animal foods as our optimal foods? Read Nina Teicholz’s incredibly well-researched and in-depth book, The Big Fat Surprise.