The quest to know what foods are defined as cruelty-free begins by learning what it takes for that food to show up in the grocery store. If animal cruelty is your concern, how similar are plants and animals? Do plants know they are being destroyed?

It is not cruel to eat plants because they do not have a central nervous system or brain that allows them to feel pain. Plants are not sentient beings, and we need them for survival – without them, there can be no life on earth at all. However, unsustainable farming can be damaging to the environment as a whole.

The effects of eating plants may be the lesser of the evils in comparison to eating meat. This is because it takes far more resources to grow enough plants to feed livestock with a much larger carbon footprint. But let us dive in and see what bad can come from eating plants.

Do Plants Feel?

There have been some fascinating experiments done that show plants are very smart. We know that a lot of plants will grow towards the light. Does this mean they can see the light?

“Appel and Cocroft found that recordings of the munching noises produced by caterpillars caused plants to flood their leaves with chemical defenses designed to ward off attackers”. Were the plants able to hear a sound? They did respond to the sound. Does this mean the caterpillar is cruel?

We will sort through what we know about the food we eat and compare our options. We do, after all, need to eat to survive.

We do not fully understand the sensory systems of plants. They are more complicated than we may initially think. We do know that they do not have nervous systems or brains the way that animals do.

In the end, whether you eat plants or animals, a certain number of plants still need to die to feed the animals that we then eat. Eating plants is necessary.

However, the way that we eat them can be cruel to the environment if we are not careful. Let’s see how the environment can suffer through our choice of food.

The Cruel Impact on the Environment from Eating Plants

There is no question that meat (especially beef) is the largest contributor to the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions. It also uses more land and water than any other source of food.

Over half of the grain produced in the U.S. is fed to livestock. So, when we compare the resources that it takes to grow the plants that we eat, we need to keep in mind that we grow a considerable amount of plants to produce meat too.

However, this does not mean that what we replace meat with does not have an environmental impact.

Carbon Footprint

We eat plants from all over the world, and some plants use planes to get to us. That leaves a carbon footprint, or the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an action, person, or event.

An analysis from the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems put the global carbon footprint of avocados at 0.55 kg of CO2/kg and mangoes at 0.6 kg of CO2/kg. This number could be lower because it does not consider that many countries do not get their fruit by air to get it fresh.

Water Use

You also need to consider the water used to grow these plants. Some types of plants use significantly more resources than others.

Some examples of plants that use more water include:

  • Cashews;
  • Almonds;
  • Avocados;
  • Mangos;
  • Plums;
  • Asparagus;
  • Rice;
  • Wheat; and
  • Corn.

So you can always help the environment by choosing more sustainable fruits and veggies, especially if you live in an area affected by drought. Luckily there are various other plants that use less water for you to choose from – some include:

  • Beans;
  • Tomatoes;
  • Squash; and
  • Melon.

Plants grown in environments with a lot of rain will, of course, use less of the local water sources.
It is estimated that tree nuts consume 909 gallons of fresh water for every kg of shelled nuts that we purchase.

And if you are an avocado lover, then you may want to brace yourself for what you’re going to hear next.

A single mature avocado tree in California uses up to 49 gallons of water in the summer. Unfortunately, it’s common to grow avocado crops in arid climates, which always puts a strain on the local environment.

Deforestation and Land Use

Another loved plant that isn’t always sustainable to farm is cocoa. Yes, that’s your chocolate we’re talking about. Cocoa is one of the biggest culprits of deforestation after the beef, pork, and poultry industry.

“It is estimated that 4.9-7.4 million acres of tropical forests were lost to cocoa plantations between 1988 and 2008”.

But please don’t stop buying chocolate altogether. It’s about learning to find sustainable farms and sources instead. Some chocolate can positively affect the environment due to the trees taking carbon out of the air.

The Cruel Impact on the Environment from Eating Animals

If people ate less meat and made plants the main focus of their meals, this could add up to 49% to the global food supply.

But if you took the grain that is fed to cows and other livestock and gave it to people, instead, you could feed 800 million people.

It’s important to keep in mind that even if you don’t eat the animals themselves, but use their byproducts like leather – you can still contribute to the problem. If you want to know more about sourcing leather read on here: Can Leather Be Cruelty-Free?

And finally, you should be considerate of what you eat when it comes to dairy, as this indirectly adds to the issue too. If you can’t get enough of your morning coffee with milk – then you might want to check this out: Can Milk Be Cruelty-Free?

Now, let’s compare the three environmental impacts we just mentioned from plant-based diets to the amount we see resulting from animal-based diets.

Carbon Footprint

Livestock produces more greenhouse gases every year than cars.

It is responsible for 14.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and two-thirds of that come from cows. It’s not a pleasant thought, but one of the main gasses, methane, is released by growing food for cows, removing trees for them to graze, and even when they burp and produce manure – nice!

These gases trap heat, which leads to climate change. Climate change leads to extreme weather, increased wildfires, and changes in our food supply and contributes to air pollution.

Water Use

Not only do cows need to drink a lot of water, but that does not even touch the amount of water required to grow the huge amount of food they eat.

Animal agriculture uses more than 50 percent of the freshwater being used today. One pound of beef uses 1,800 gallons of water. Cows eat a vast amount of food but are not very efficient in converting that food into meat.

Deforestation and Land Use

Once again – we’re looking at cows. Cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of the current deforestation. Beef needs ten times the amount of land that is needed for grains.

60 percent of the world’s land for agriculture is used for beef production, but this accounts for only 2 percent of the calories that feed the world.

Growing plants solely to eat ourselves would take up significantly less space, and therefore saving more forest.

If you are not someone who is prepared to give up your steak dinner, but want to know whether there is a better way to source the meat you eat, it might still be possible. We give you some fantastic insights here: Can You Be Cruelty-Free and Eat Meat?


So, what is kind? Recognizing that the choices you make for food have an impact on the world is kind. Are any of these choices completely cruelty-free? Maybe not, but kindness is caring and wanting to be a little better.

Plant senses are not fully understood, and we need to eat to survive. Animal products are produced using a large number of plants. We know that the negative environmental effect of eating animal products is greater than that of plant foods.

This does not mean all plants are the same. Think about where your food is coming from and do your best. No, eating plants is not cruel. Not only does eating more plants help lessen the load on the environment, but if the demand for meat decreases, the amount of cruelty to animals will decrease too.

Make your tacos with beans instead of beef. Just like that – you have added a little bit of kindness to your health, the animals, and the environment.

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