A vegan world saves 76% of farmland

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

Meat – some love it, some hate it, and lots of people argue about whether we should eat it or not [1]. There is certainly an ethical argument for not eating meat – many believe that we should not make animals suffer unnecessarily [2,3]. In terms of environmental impacts, it’s clear that eating meat rather than plant-based alternatives is damaging for nature and the climate [4, 5]. Let’s explore why:

When a cow eats, only about 3% of the energy it gets from its plant-based diet is converted into meat – the rest is used by the cow for things like walking around and keeping itself warm [6,7,8]. This is a very inefficient way for us to get food; if we ate the cow’s food (or other plants) rather than the cow itself, we would avoid this energy loss [8]!

We would therefore also require much less land to produce the same amount of food [8,9]. If everyone worldwide became vegan, it’s estimated that we would need 76% less land to grow enough food for everybody [10].

Eating food that uses less land would mean we could stop cutting down forests to make way for farmland [10,11,12] – there is more than enough space to feed everyone with a low or no-meat diet [4]. Converting farmland to natural habitat would be beneficial not just for wildlife but also for humans – for example, forests, wetlands and meadows can reduce erosion of soil and coastline, increase water availability, and be beautiful places for people to enjoy, providing health and psychological benefits [12,13,14].

Cows and sheep are particularly bad for climate change because bacteria in their stomachs that help breakdown fibrous food cause them to burp methane [15,16]. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it stays in the atmosphere for less time [17]. This means that if we reduced meat production, the amount of methane in the air would decrease after just a few years [17].

Scientists advise that meat consumption globally should drop by about 50% in order to improve people’s health and ensure that we can feed the growing world population [4].


[1] https://www.debate.org/opinions/should-humans-eat-meat This illustrates that people do argue about whether we should eat meat

[2] https://brill.com/view/journals/jmp/11/6/article-p677_1.xml

[3] https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_QpDDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA209&dq=ethical+argument+vegan&ots=Itk9YnRbPY&sig=aC8r2zAKndiueei_zKW2cSDGS48#v=onepage&q=ethical%20argument%20vegan&f=false See: e.g. ‘Suffering: Other things being equal, it is wrong to cause suffering’

[4] https://eatforum.org/content/uploads/2019/07/EAT-Lancet_Commission_Summary_Report.pdf See: Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts, and Achieving planetary health diets

[5] https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/ See: video for a neat summary of how diet change can benefit human health, hunger, and the environment, based on the EAT-Lancet report

[6] https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1027&context=driftlessconference

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z2m39j6/revision/6

[8] https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/10/105002/pdf See: Abstract and Discussion

[9] https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets

[10] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/360/6392/987.full.pdf?casa_token=HfilDLPwohkAAAAA:KFhDbCrJGnhje3CokKBGqPG1CC5NJ3XcKkU23fNqxWxxqY_qh7qUJh2C9lJewxwPm5sh_mkGi2PIe0M See: Mitigation through consumers and Producer mitigation limits and the role of consumers (‘deforestation for agriculture is dominated (67%) by feed, particularly soy, maize, and pasture’)

[11] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/4/2019/11/05_Chapter-2.pdf See: ‘Several mitigation response options have technical potential…’

[12] https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=dVX1CAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&ots=fubBUwDx5o&sig=CCODTMWaXsroeFKtgJlRX4HheGc#v=onepage&q&f=false See: Chapter 1 Rewilding, Abstract; Abandoned Landscapes in Europe and Benefits of Rewilding for Biodiversity; Benefits of Rewilding for People: Ecosystem Services

[13] https://www.naturebasedsolutionsevidence.info/evidence-tool/ See : Heatmap view: habitat type by climate change impact

[14] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-90-481-9806-1_5

[15] http://www.fao.org/3/i3461e/i3461e.pdf See: Key findings

[16] http://www.fao.org/in-action/enteric-methane/background/what-is-enteric-methane/en/

[17] https://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/research/energy/downloads/methaneuk/methaneukreport.pdf See: Why Methane: Table 1 and Lifetime

[18] https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/article/33/2/212/1585136

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