Giving up on meat (particularly red meat) is definitely one of the most eco-friendly things you can do, but going the extra mile and turning vegan might not be as rewarding, new research finds.

Vegan or vegetarian, it makes little difference — at least from a land usage perspective.

The world sure loves meat. As of 2018, the average American adult eats 222.2 pounds of meat and poultry per year, which, aside from ethical considerations, also comes with a lot of water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. What all this is saying, essentially, is that meat consumption places a massive stress on the environment — and if we want to reduce our environmental impact, eating less meat seems crucial.

In order to assess the environmental cost of various low-meat diets, a team of researchers used a biophysical simulation and compared 10 different eating patterns: the vegan diet, two vegetarian diets (one that only includes dairy, and another that includes both dairy and eggs), four omnivorous diets (with various levels of plant and meat consumption), one low in fats and sugars, and lastly, a diet that’s very similar to the average eating standards in the US (high in meat, sugars, and processed foods).

The researchers looked at how much land use was associated with each particular diet — which is an additional concern to water and greenhouse gases. They found that counter-intuitively, the vegan diet wasn’t the most eco-friendly choice — it was outmatched by both vegetarian diets, as well as two omnivorous diets with low meat consumption. Again, this is only about land usage.

The reason for this has a lot to do with agriculture. We use different types of soils to grow different types of foods, and when you’re following a vegan diet, you basically forego a set of environmental conditions. For instance, some areas may be unsuited for agricultural plants, but are ideal for grazing, which can be used for cattle in the dairy industry.

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Vegan myths

 There are many myths surrounding vegetarianism and veganism — probably the more prevalent is that you can’t get enough protein without meat. However, that’s hardly the case. There are many options to substitute meat consumption, and vegetarian/vegan diets can be just as nutritious (and even healthier) if they are carefully planned.

The ten eating patterns clearly developed into two groups: the diets which featured the highest meat consumption also required the most amount of land. But in the group with lower or no meat consumption, things weren’t as clear-cut. The vegan diet particularly stands out because it doesn’t use any perennial land at all — in other words, the lands that grow hay or grain used to feed livestock are essentially wasted.

Perennial crops also offer another advantage, surviving for many seasons and reducing the agricultural “wear and tear” on the environment. To put it simply, veganism is a strict diet, which renders a lot of otherwise usable land useless, which limits some of its environmental advantages.

Image credits: Peters et al / Elementa.

However, the scale of the difference is important to underline. The differences between the vegan and two vegetarian diets are minute — but as soon as the meat consumption increases, the land usage increases dramatically, particularly due to all the land needed for grazing. Simply put, the vegan-vegetarian differences were marginal — but the vegetarian/vegan-meat differences are huge.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made against this type of utilitarian approach — many vegans choose this diet for ethical reasons, and would (rightly) not be swayed by this sort of argument. But this also shouldn’t be a reason to not go vegan. The downside of the vegan diet emerges only if everyone adopts it, which realistically speaking, won’t happen anytime soon. Even if the number of vegans grows dramatically year after year, there would still be a significant demand for animal products, so this study should deter no would-be vegans.

At the end of the day, the important takeaway is that no matter what your dietary preferences are, you should, at any rate, try to reduce meat consumption. It’s better for the animals, it’s better for the land, for the planet, and as countless studies have already shown, it’s better for you.

The study has been published in the journal Elementa.