The Case for Plant Based

© Dana Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD

Eating a plant-based diet is not just good for our health; it is good for Earth’s health.  In fact, “Shifting away from animal-based foods [could not only] add up to 49% to the global food supply without expanding croplands;” but would also significantly reduce carbon emissions and waste byproducts that end up in our oceans and as seafood byproducts (Jalava et al, 2014).

If each and every person in the United States gave up meat and dairy products on one or more days of the week; ideally, all days of the week, we would save the environment from thousands of tons of carbon emissions.  In fact, in one year, animal husbandry creates as much carbon emissions as the entire transportation sector.

Similarly, by reducing our animal-based foods consumption, we would reduce our water use at least by half as animal husbandry utilizes more than 50% of fresh water.

These reductions would reduce the direct and indirect threats to Earth’s health and habitability for us, and for all wildlife, flora, and fauna.

As for nutritional concerns:  Pound-for-pound, gallon-for-gallon, animal-sourced foods use vastly more water and carbon to produce than plant-based foods.  However; ounce-for-ounce, the amount of protein that you get from plant-sources, such as legumes, seeds, and grains, is closely on par, plus full of other healthful nutrients including fiber, sterols, stanols, and vitamins and minerals.

To put this into context:

  • 1 pound of beef requires anywhere between 2000 and 8,000 gallons of water to produce, according to studies conducted by UC Davis.   Much of this water is used in creating the feed for the cows, whether it is grass or grain (Beckett & Oltjen, 1993).
  • Similarly, 1 gallon of cow’s milk requires 1950 gallons of water.
  • Conversely, 1 pound of Tofu requires 302 gallons of water to produce, and it requires 290 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of unprocessed oats.

Now, for those of you worried about protein content:

1 pound of beef = 90-100 grams protein                Costs 20 – 80 gallons of water per gram protein

1 gallon of milk = 128 grams of protein                Costs 15 gallons of water per gram protein

1 pound of tofu = 45-55 grams of protein              Costs 6 gallons of water per gram protein

1 pound of oats = 75 grams of protein                   Costs 3.8 gallons of water per gram protein.

From a water perspective, using simple mathematics, it is much more efficient and cost-effective to eat plant foods than animal foods.  From a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, it is without doubt; significantly better for the environment to eat plant-based foods.

If we all eliminated meat and milk from our diets and went to plant sources of these foods, we would be saving at least 50% of our water use.  We would be saving untouched habitats (Rainforests, marshes) from being destroyed to produce more livestock feed, and we would be creating less pollution in our waterways, streams, and oceans that indirectly threaten human, animal, and plant lives.

What are some ways we can eat plant-based on UCLA’s Campus?

There are many places throughout campus you can purchase plant-based meals.  Plant-based items are available at all eating outlets, from the hospital, to the residence halls, to the food courts; it is possible to find something to suit your tastes.

Medical Center: The medical center (Westwood and Santa Monica) offers Meatless Monday all year round where special hot-entrée vegetarian and vegan items are available in addition to the salad bars which offer an array of vegetables and mixed vegetarian/vegan dressed salads.

In addition to Meatless Monday, every day you can find several vegetarian and vegan items available at the deli, grille, and international corner.  New offerings are always being created seasonally as well.  In fact, the hospital has recently added new recipes that contain whole grains, seeds, and legumes including bulgur and faro dishes along with quinoa and lentils.  

Campus: Throughout campus you can find multiple vegetarian and vegan items as well!

Beefless Thursdays are offered at the main dining halls throughout campus to highlight the negative environmental impacts associated with beef production.  “Green Mondays” is a new educational campaign on campus, demonstrating the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment, from water use to greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, getting a meatless option on The Hill is easy!  Every platform station at every dining hall offers vegetarian options for every meal, including vegan quesadillas at Rendezvous; Lentil, beet, wheat, berry, and Kale bowls at Bruin Plate; and ginger-tofu stir fries at Feast, to name a few.

The great thing about UCLA is that we are making it easier for you and U to find the healthy foods that support the mission of UCLA sustainability, Zero Waste by 2020 and 20% sustainable food purchases by 2020.  Additionally, UCLA offers sustainable service-ware, composting, recycling, and opportunities to improve both UCLA’s water and carbon footprint, as well as your own. 


Jalava M, Kummu M, Porkka M, Siebert S, and Varis O (2014).  Diet Change–a solution to reduce water use? Environ. Res. lett. 9(7):1-14.

Beckett, J. L., and J. W. Oltjen. (1993) Estimation of the water requirement for beef production in the United States. J. Anim. Sci. 71: 818-826

United Nations (2016).  First Global Integrated marine Assessment (First World Ocean Assessment). Oceans and Law of the Sea, an integrated Report.