Veganism: Is It Better for the Planet?

The first instalment of three focuses on environmental sustainability of veganism, explaining that many considerations can be easily overlooked when following the dietary trend.

Over the last decade the number of self-identified UK vegans has risen 350%. The vegan diet has been in the spotlight recently as more and more of the British population decide to give up animal-derived food products. High street coffee shops like Caffe Nero and Starbucks now offer alternative milks and vegan pop-up stalls have become the new normal.

It’s clear this lifestyle isn’t just a passing trend, and it’s easy to link this to the growing public concern for the environment along with the plastic straw crusade. But is the vegan diet really more sustainable?

On the face of it, it seems abundantly clear that the vegan diet is better for the environment. The meat industry is one of the most inefficient sources of food production: beef uses the most land and freshwater and emits the most greenhouse emissions of any food consumed. Animals require large amounts of space and ingest a huge number of calories. The World Resources Institute (WRI) and the United Nations both highlight the crucial importance of reducing meat consumption in tackling climate change. As a species we are all massively over-consuming protein, empty calories and agricultural resources like a grand-scale enactment of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

If 2 billion people shifted their diets to include less beef – not even having to go vegetarian – WRI calculated that this would free up around 640 million hectares of productive agricultural land. That’s twice the size of India, and on top of that we’d have the additional source of some of the 25% of the world’s crops that currently go to animal feed. It’s ironic that in our hunger for calories and meat, we struggle so much to adapt to the diet that would give us, as a planet, so much more food and help close the global food poverty gap. And these statistics are just for beef: imagine the impact of an overall reduction in the meat industry. Actually you don’t have to imagine, because I’ve found them for you.

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I mean guys, this is so damaging you may as well just set fire to a recycling bin every time you get a burger and it still wouldn’t be as bad as ordering the burger.

If we all went vegan it’s estimated this would reduce our carbon emissions by 70% by 2050 and save 8 million lives, taking into account the millions of people in the Western world suffering from heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other conditions that have been directly linked to our unhealthy diets. In addition it would free up some of the 760 million tonnes of food currently fed to livestock each year, perhaps to feed other humans instead: it’s estimated that we only need 40 million tonnes of food to feed everyone on the planet. We’re already producing far more than that.

So let me be clear: the fact that we all need to be eating less meat isn’t even in question. I’ll save us all a further fifteen graphs and scary statistics and assume the staggering abundance of evidence is convincing enough. What we’re interested in is not highlighting the devastating impact of the meat industry but evaluating how far the vegan lifestyle provides a sustainable alternative.

First of all we have to be clear about what we mean by sustainability. To consult the UN Sustainable Development Goals (or as I like to call them, the holy grail of meaningful change), any truly sustainable attempt to tackle climate change has to work within a framework that supports the prosperity and needs of the economy and local and global communities. No pressure.

Seeing the unsettling statistics about the meat industry, it’s easy to go for the almond milk option at Costa or stock up on hummus and vegetables in Tesco and give yourself a pat on the back for not contributing to the destruction of the planet. Well, bad news: it’s not as simple as that.

‘Vegan’ shouldn’t be conflated as synonymous with ‘eco-friendly.’ Recently, some dairy milk alternatives were the source of controversial debate as people pointed out that their production can be damaging: almond milk production uses up 17 times more water than cow milk per litre. Conversely, cow milk produces 10 times as many greenhouse gases.  And while we’re at it, soy milk depends on soybean imports from South America and the Brazilian government estimates that the greenhouse emissions from the resultant deforestation are equivalent to half a year’s worth of total emissions from the UK. And if we want to get really picky about the environmental impact of what we’re putting in our lattes we have to consider the carbon footprint of transporting the ingredients, the variable sustainability of different farms, the milk extraction process, even the packaging it comes in. The debate swings back and forth like the world’s most polluting see-saw and tends to leave no clear solutions either way.

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Deforestation for a palm oil plantation in Sumatra. Image Credit: By Hayden [CC BY 2.0], / Wikimedia Commons

Leaving aside vegan alternatives to animal-derived products, there are still a wide range of food products that could be classified as vegan but any good environmentalist will recognise as damaging. Perhaps the clearest example of this is palm oil.

Often using forest fires for vegetation clearance, large-scale palm oil plantations have devastated natural habitats and caused soil pollution and erosion. Not exactly the eco-foodie’s dream choice. It’s not just in food either: palm oil appears when you least expect it, like an ex on your Facebook newsfeed. It’s in shampoo, make-up, detergents, ice cream, you name it.

So you might be thinking, if even veganism is damaging the planet then what’s the point in trying? Should we all just throw in the towel and declare defeat? Well, all things considered a vegan diet is still far better for the environment than any other diet. The statistics already show that the footprint of any plant-based food is far lower than that produced by meat and dairy production.

Researchers at the University of Oxford estimated that switching to a vegan diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by nearly 73%. It’s not just an improvement for carbon emissions either, as research by the European Commission found that if people in the UK, France and Germany switched to a pescetarian or vegetarian diet it could reduce their water footprint by up to 55%.

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UK water footprint related to food consumption (litres per person per day). Image Source: Vanham et al

What is important here is not to put a dietary choice in a rigid category of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the environment. Eating meat twice a week is better than eating it seven times a week, eating it once a week is better than twice, and so on. Diets aren’t damaging the planet, production of certain foods are damaging the planet more than others. What menu choices are most sustainable will depend largely on your location, the provenance of the ingredients, the local economy, and countless other factors that are often beyond our control. The reason why veganism is environmentally friendlier is because on the whole it relies on plant-based foods that are less energy-intensive to produce, but it is not a necessary consequence.

It’s also worth considering that in the space currently used for livestock you certainly could plant a whole lot more lettuce instead, but we shouldn’t consider them direct alternatives. A kilo of beef is not the same as a kilo of lettuce. If we compare them based on their calorific value, you need over six times as much lettuce to meet the same caloric needs.

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This might seem like a bit of a non-issue in a country where nearly a third of the population is obese, but environmentally speaking this means certain vegetables can rack up an unexpectedly high energy and water cost in production. This isn’t to say that vegetables are worse than meat – how many vegetarians are subsisting entirely on low-calorie lettuce and cucumber, after all? – but that we shouldn’t be so quick to label certain foods or lifestyles as good or bad and instead recognise that the environmental impact of diets is a complex issue.

4 comments

  1. Absolutely loved this article. Just because it’s labeled vegan (a whole other issue – greenwashing marketing) doesn’t mean it’s better.
    Thanks for writing a great piece that coupled facts with common sense!

    Like

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