The Benefits of Plant-Based Diets and Links to Agroforestry

There’s a lot of information about diets: healthy diets, high-protein diets, lactose-free diets. But there’s one type of diet that is unequivocally good for the environment and your body, and that’s a plant-based diet. 

November 1st marks World Vegan Day, a day when vegans worldwide come together to celebrate the benefits of a vegan lifestyle. How we eat and what we consume is deeply personal, but some diets are better than others in many ways. Going plant-based is one of them. 

It seems ironic that eating more plants means saving the environment. But it’s true. According to studies, shifting away from animal-based foods can add 49% more to the global food supply without increasing croplands. On top of that, plant-based diets reduce carbon emissions by a considerable amount and reduce waste. 

What is a plant-based diet?

Eating plant-based means eating foods primarily made from or sourced from plants. This applies to your everyday fruits and vegetables and includes seeds, nuts, oils, legumes, and grains.

Although there are many overlaps, a plant-based diet is not the same as a vegan or vegetarian diet. A plant-based diet excludes all meat and animal products (meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, and eggs), whereas a vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, fish and seafood. Vegan goes beyond diet; it also excludes any product from animal origin such as leather. When following a plant-based diet, you proportionately choose more of your food from plant sources. You’ll get all the necessary vitamins and nutrients in ideal doses; in fact, a plant-based diet is often higher in fibers and phytonutrients as well. 

Many existing global cuisines are already heavily plant-based, which means there are a lot of resources out there to guide first-timers. The Mediterranean diet, for example, prioritizes plant-based foods — and research shows that this diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, even some types of cancer. 

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet for humans?

A plant-based diet has also been touted as healthy for the human body, not least because it reduces the risk of diseases. 

Healthier hearts without the saturated fat

Meat contains saturated fat, which, when eaten in excess, can contribute to heart trouble. A 2019 study even found that consuming a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 16% and the risk of dying from it by 31%. 

However, it is worth mentioning that this is achieved not just by cutting meats from your diet but by choosing healthy plant-based foods. What this means isn’t replacing a daily steak with a bowl of highly processed cereal. It means loading up on legumes, healthy oils, fruits, veggies, and whole grains. 

Keep your brain strong for long

There’s been some compelling research that links plant-based diets to slower progress of Alzheimer’s. This is likely because fruits, whole grains, and vegetables (i.e., the Holy Trinity of a plant-based diet) are rich in polyphenols which may help reverse cognitive decline with age. 

This benefit rolls into a major one: a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of all causes of mortality by a whopping 25%. Sticking to a plant-based diet over time serves to enhance the protective layer, too!

What are the benefits of plant-based food for the environment?

It may seem like one person changing to a plant-based diet may not do much. However, our individual choices add to large-scale changes that can offset climate change and keep global warming under control. Here is what switching to a plant-based diet can do for the environment:

Reduces the climate change impact 

The food production industry accounts for a whopping 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and meat products account for about three-quarters of that percentage. Shifting to vegetarian and vegan diets has been scientifically proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. 

More food production with less land

A report prepared by scientists for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that if we all collectively cut down on meat consumption, more people can be fed using less land. The report considers the alarming amount of meat consumed by Western countries, especially when healthier and more environmentally friendly choices are available.

More space for forests 

According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, our usage of land and environmentally unfriendly agro practices are as extensive an environmental threat as climate change itself. Many lush forests have been razed down to make space for animal husbandry, which uses a disproportionately large amount of land. The animal livestock industry uses 77% of all agricultural land but counts for only 17% of global caloric consumption.

In addition to that, in the words of Evelyn Perez, Florida International University:

“Producing livestock, including cattle, goats and sheep, for human consumption is the single largest driver of habitat loss and deforestation worldwide.”

Going plant-based can reduce global land use for agriculture by 75%, saving many forests destined to become fallow land. 

How do plant-based diets support agroforestry?

To keep up with a growing population and millions of hungry mouths, countless forests have been turned into agro-industrial monocultures. These lands often then turn into deserts due to inappropriate agricultural processes, deforestation, or droughts. As a result, we see an increase in barren lands that serve no purpose but exacerbate existing problems. A heavily backed solution to that is agroforestry.

Agroforestry refers to the process of growing trees with agricultural or horticultural crops on the same piece of land. It can increase the value of land and biodiversity while enhancing food output from an ecosystem. It’s a highly flexible method that balances the need for food and the preservation of natural habitats. 

So how do plant-based diets support this process? For one, vegetables are considered land-sparing foods because they reduce the need for croplands. Secondly, plant-based diets reduce the need for lands used exclusively for feed production (i.e., food for livestock). According to the New Scientist, a worldwide shift to veganism can reduce the land needed for feed production by 21%. Shifting away from just beef can spare 300 million hectares of grazing land

In tandem with agroforestry, then, going plant-based can increase forest cover and grow sufficient food without the need for pastures or the cause for desertification. More forests mean better carbon storage, regulated temperatures, natural habitats for flora and fauna, and better livelihoods for many communities. Growing enough food to sustain the population while occupying as little land as possible may just be our best way of balancing both urgent needs. 

The final word

We’re facing a global land-use crisis that is affecting forests in the most alarming way. Animal agriculture is the top driver of deforestation because it’s the most extensive land-use system on the planet.

Shifting to a plant-based diet has several benefits for individuals as well as for the environment. That said, it’s not without controversy. Some see plant-based diets as a threat to conventional diets and an existential threat to rural economies reliant on livestock and animal husbandry. While the evidence favoring plant-based diets is accumulating, there is a concern that scientific study may call for ideological shifts that warrant a major food system overhaul. 

As we chase global warming milestones and seek to fight climate change, this is a crucial shift to consider making. Together with agroforestry, an increase in plant-based diets might well be the best way to sustain growing populations without degrading the planet any further than we have already.