Animal agriculture has a hefty water footprint and is a primary source of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-forward diets, on the other hand, have been shown to be one of the best ways to lessen your environmental impact. In the latest Good Together podcast, you'll learn exactly why they play such a big role in helping the planet.
In the episode, Liza Moiseeva, Brightly's CMO and co-founder, discussed sustainable diets with Shiri Avnery, PhD, the COO and co-founder of Thistle. Even before launching the ready-to-eat, plant-forward meal delivery service with her husband, she was really interested in creating change with food.
"I was actually in the academic world, researching various dimensions of environmental science, and especially the intersection between climate change, air pollution, and food," she says. "I've been really passionate about Earth and environmental science ever since I was exposed to it by an incredible teacher back in the eighth grade, and I followed that passion all the way through college and a PhD. But I eventually decided I wanted to do a little bit more than be in the academic world where the pace of change felt a little bit slow."
After discussing two of the world's biggest challenges with her husband and co-founder—the growing health crisis and climate change—they realized there was one solution: "Eating more plants and eating less meat," she says.
Why Are Sustainable Diets Diets So Popular?
While eating plant-based, vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets are popular now, that wasn't always the case. In 2004, only 290,000 Americans were plant-based. Since then, more than 9.7 million people have made the shift. She's seen the change with her own customer base, too.
"Right now, around 70 percent of our customers are on fully plant-based plans, and only around 30 percent—or even a little less—are choosing a sustainable meat add-on option," she says. "But five years ago, it was almost the exact opposite."
Avnery says the reason behind the shift to more sustainable diets is all the information people have at their fingertips. We also get a constant reminder of the changes that need to happen every time we turn on the news.
"There's growing awareness around the horrible impacts of animal agriculture in our ecosystem. And each year, I think the fact that these climate change impacts are becoming more and more acutely felt are helping to contribute to this sense of urgency. We need to make changes now, today. What I really like about about this is it's one powerful change we can all choose to make every single day, three times a day, or more."
The Footprint of Animal Products
Vegans avoid all animal products, vegetarians still eat things like dairy and eggs, and flexitarians eat a primarily plant-based diet but occasionally include animal products. So, which of these sustainable diets is best for the planet?
"In terms of planetary impacts, I will say dairy is actually a pretty high-impact food category across numerous metrics, including climate change, resource use, and pollution," Avnery says. "For example, cheese has about 25 times the impact of peas, and five and a half times the impact of tofu."
Eggs, however, are "about 10 times the impact of peas and twice the impact of tofu. So still much higher. But not nearly as high as beef," she says. "In a hierarchy of things to get rid of, beef and lamb are definitely first and foremost to get rid of as much as possible. And then dairy, pig meat, and poultry. Eggs seem to kind of have the lowest overall impact across that category."
Avnery says going vegetarian can "cut your emissions by about half" and going vegan can cut it by "70 percent to even upwards of 85 percent." So any change you make—even adding more plant-based meals to your weekly line-up—can make a huge difference.
What About Vegan Alternatives?
These days, you don't really ever have to give up the taste of animal products—not with all the vegan options on the market.
"We've seen the mainstreaming of plant-based [foods] through the success of companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. I think that their success can show you don't need to sacrifice taste—it doesn't need to be all or nothing," she says. "For somebody who's looking to make a better choice for the environment, no question that those are better options."
How much do they help, exactly? The Beyond Burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and 46 percent less energy than a beef burger. As for the Impossible Burger, it uses 96 percent less land and 87 percent less water than beef. They both generate less greenhouse gas emissions as well: 90 percent and 89 percent, respectively.
There's also all the other vegan products to consider. For example, JUST Egg—which is made from mung beans—uses 98 percent less water, has a 93 percent smaller carbon footprint, and uses 86 percent less land than eggs from animals. Even small swaps can make a huge difference.
Resources We Mentioned
- How Not to Die by Michael Greger
- Poore & Nemecek (2018) - Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers (summary here)
- Clark et al (2020) - Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets (summary here)
- World Wildlife Fund - Living Planet Report 2020
Want to hear more about different plant-based diets and how they help your health and the planet? Click play on the podcast above, or find other listening options here.