Selling your car and skipping flights will dramatically reduce your personal carbon footprint, but if you want to holistically help the planet, then going vegan is your best bet.
That’s according to a new study published Friday in the journal Science. The environmental impact of eating meat and dairy products is unrivaled among human activities, the authors argue, and foods like hamburgers, yogurt, and chicken wings don’t even play a meaningful role in the global diet.
While dairy and meat products take up 83% of global farmland, they provide just 18% of human calories and 37% of global protein, the report found. If people stopped eating these foods, farmland would be reduced by 75%, allowing ecosystems around the world to recover from deforestation and other forms of harm, while still generating enough food to feed all of humanity.
Take Action: Stand Up for the Arctic
A separate recent study found that humans have killed 83% of all wild mammals and half of all plants, and that the industrial production of animal products plays a major role in this annihilation.
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use,” Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research, told the Guardian. "It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”
The authors took a unique approach to assessing the environmental impact of diet, according to the Guardian. Rather than looking at national emissions data, the authors studied 40,000 farms in 119 countries, covering dozens of food products that represent 90% of all that is consumed.
By looking at individual farms, the research team was also able to measure environmental impacts beyond greenhouse gas emissions, including freshwater use, water pollution, and air pollution.
Read More: 9 Ways Veganism Is Helping the Planet
“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” Poore told the Guardian. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”
These new findings don’t mean that everyone has to suddenly adopt a vegan diet, according to the authors. Instead, gradually reducing meat and dairy consumption is enough to significantly help the planet.
For example, becoming a “reducetarian” entails pledges like a “meatless Monday” or “vegan before 6 p.m.”
The report also argues that government action can be taken. Each year, more than $500 billion is provided in food subsidies around the world, much of which goes to dairy and meat production. These funds can be better allocated to promote sustainable agriculture, according to the Guardian.
The authors also said that taxes could make meat and dairy prices more accurate.
Poore, for one, came to the realization that he could no longer eat meat and dairy while conducting this study.
“The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there,” he told the Guardian. “But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them, and the answer is a lot.”
Global Citizen campaigns on the United Nations’ Global Goals, which call on countries to protect biodiversity. You can take action on this issue here.