Which Diet Has the Least Environmental Impact on Our Planet?

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diet with least environmental impact

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When we think of living a sustainable life, we often think about renewable resources of energy, Eco-friendly packaging, reducing or eliminating plastic use, and checking our water usage. One very important way that we all can make sustainable choices every day is by making changes to the food we eat. 

Research has increasingly shown that what we eat has a huge impact on the environment. Omnivorous diets, vegetarian diets, and vegan diets are common but which diet has the least environmental impact on our planet? 

Findings from several studies have pointed to the vegan diet being the best for the environment. A vegan diet is one that excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy, and even honey. Why is it the least destructive diet for the planet? Let’s examine the findings from research on the topic.


Greenhouse gas emissions

cows emit greenhouse gases

Nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and methane are greenhouse gases and animal agriculture accounts for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Of this, livestock accounts for about 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions

In fact, for every kilogram of beef produced, 43 kg of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, with 22 kg of these emissions being from methane. Methane is actually a more destructive greenhouse gas, having a global warming potential that’s 86 times greater than carbon dioxide. 

Raising livestock also increases nitrous oxide emissions by 65% – a gas that has 296 times higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. While vegetarian diets report lower figures, dairy products still make up about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. 

A vegan diet, by contrast, can result in a reduction in your carbon footprint by 50% and save 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide annually. It can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% for carbon dioxide, 24% for methane, and 21% for nitrous oxide. 


Land use

Meat production makes up 39% of land use and livestock farming utilizes 70% of the world’s agricultural land and 1/3 of its arable land. 1/3 of global land has been subjected to desertification because of livestock operations. 

The production of animal-based protein requires 18 times more land than vegan protein sources, which just requires 1/6th of an acre to feed one individual for one year.

When compared to vegan staples like potatoes, rice, and beans, producing just one kg of beef needs 163 times more land, 19 times more nitrogen, 18 times more water, and 11 times more carbon dioxide. Land use could be lowered by 50% if the world’s meat and dairy production was replaced with the production of plant-based sources of food.    

Livestock, as well as, feed crops are destroying our rainforests, with 91% of deforestation in the Amazon rainforests being due to animal agriculture. About 26 million acres of rainforest have been cleared for the production of palm oil, while 136 million acres of rainforest have been cleared for meat and dairy production. 

Desertification has resulted from such practices as native vegetation has been ruined, increasing soil erosion.

Not only does this eliminate carbon dioxide storing trees and plants, but it also affects the habitat of animals living in the region and has led to the extinction of several insects, plants, and animal species that were earlier dependent on the rainforests.


Water use

water use - diet with least environmental impact

About 1/3 of the freshwater resources on the planet are used by the meat and dairy industry, with animal agriculture accounting for 55% of water use in the US, while domestic consumption in the US is just at 5%. 

In the US, 56% of water resources are directed for the growth of feed crops for livestock farming. Egg production (1 lb) requires 477 gallons of water, while cheese production (1 lb) requires 900 gallons of water. It takes approximately 1000 gallons of water for the production of just 1 gallon of milk. 

Just 1 kg of beef needs 13 kg of grains, 30 kg of hay, and 105400L of water in comparison to 500-2000L of water for the production of 1 kg crop. Just 1 kg of animal protein requires 100 times more water consumption than 1 kg of plant-based protein. 

A vegan diet requires 14.4% less freshwater resources and 20.8% less groundwater resources when compared to an omnivorous diet. You’d be cutting your water footprint significantly by following a vegan diet.



In the US alone, 7 million pounds of excrement are generated every minute by animals being raised for food, which is 130 times higher than the waste being generated by humans. This waste is typically the runoff from farms, which enters our water bodies, posing risk to our health and destroying the planet. 

About 3/4 of global fisheries have already been exploited and approximately 2.7 trillion animals are pulled out from the ocean annually. Several species that aren’t being targeted also end up in fishing nets as by-catch (5 pounds of by-catch for every pound of fish caught). This has massively reduced the population of dolphins, sharks, seals, and whales. 

The next time you’re wondering about the diet with least environmental impact on our planet, give the vegan diet a try. You’ll be benefiting the planet in a big way through the simple yet powerful act of eating foods that don’t come at the cost of the environment.    

  • Luke Rooks

    Luke is a passionate environmental advocate based in upstate New York. When he's not sharing tips on sustainability and wellness, you can find him hiking with his dog, Max.

1 thought on “Which Diet Has the Least Environmental Impact on Our Planet?”

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