The Sustainable Plate

Charlotte Scurlock | Contributor

Many people choose to abstain from consuming animal products in order not to contribute to the astonishing environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture. There has been an ongoing debate as to whether or not one can rightfully identify as an environmentalist while still consuming animal products, thus knowingly contributing to such a harmful process. While the environmental impact of animal agriculture is unignorable, responsible consumption is more complex than it seems – abstaining from animal products is not an immediate solution to a totally sustainable lifestyle.

The enormous wastefulness and environmental impact of animal agriculture is an undisputable fact. Animal agriculture is one of the leading producers of methane, with cows alone producing approximately 150 billion gallons of methane per day. Agriculture, which includes the production of crops and livestock, is responsible for 80-90% of water consumption in the United States, with 56% of total water usage devoted to growing feed crops for livestock. Animal agriculture is also a leading cause of deforestation, animal extinction, and habitat loss. Already, the combined cultivation of both crops and livestock is responsible for approximately a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, a portion of which is unavoidable in order to produce food, but the additional emissions resulting from feed crops or livestock itself is a needless additional burden.

Plant-based diets require far less energy and create fewer emissions and less waste during production, since the steps of producing animal feed and then raising the livestock are removed. However, though planet-only consumption avoids these, a vegan diet can negatively impact the environment as well in different ways. Many vegans rely on certain foods as staples which require enormous amounts of water and can cause disastrous effects on local environments. Such is the case of certain nuts and avocados, for example. (Turns out the “avo-burger” trend – and the over consumption of avocados in general – springing up across Instagram doesn’t fit into the eco-friendly mission of many vegans.)

California is the primary source of many varieties of American nuts, including almonds, thanks to the state’s annual temperate climate. Each almond needs approximately 1.1 gallons of water to be produced, a figure that puts massive ecological stress on a state that has suffered major droughts for several years now. As demand for almonds and avocados increase, the products continue to deplete California and other countries of water. Growing almonds has caused the ground in certain parts of the Central Valley to sink by approximately eleven inches a year. Almond growth has also further endangers bees. Almond farmers shipped millions of honeybees to pollinate almonds, only for many of them to die due to the insecticides in the area. Nuts and avocadoes are not the only plants depleting the environment of water, and while these products may be harmful to the environment, they are good for the economy.

While the environmental impact of growing and purchasing these plants on such a level may not appear as globally harmful as animal agriculture, consumption of certain plant products comes with a slew of other issues. Consumers should be mindful of the impact of the products they purchase, and certain foods should be considered more as an occasional luxury than a staple food.

Even if a person were to eat a completely environmentally sustainable diet, they could still contribute to climate change in other ways, like wasteful living habits, that could be more dramatic than the impact of eating animal products. Simply eliminating animal products from the diet does not necessarily lead to environmentally sound food or lifestyle choices. That said, environmentalism shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing concept. People can still take plenty of actions to protect the environment without giving up meat. It is certainly better to reduce one’s carbon footprint in any way possible – achieving perfect sustainability is a lofty goal, and its unattainability should not dissuade people from taking whatever steps they can to lessen their negative ecological impacts.