Is Being Vegan Better For The Environment?
The term veganism was coined in 1944, and describes a lifestyle free of all animal-derived products. The first known mention of a vegan diet can be traced back to Ancient India, where spiritual practices taught non-violence towards animals.
In modern times, veganism is trending in the UK and around the globe, with 2018 marking the year that Great Britain became the leading retailer of vegan products in the world. According to Plant Based News, statistics have revealed that since 2017, the demand for meat-free products has increased by more than 987 percent (on a global scale). Also, a new poll found that the number of people following a vegan diet in the UK skyrocketed by 40 percent in 2020.
In the UK alone, the number of vegan meals ordered between 2016 and 2018 has ballooned by a whopping 388 percent. Yet the trend towards veganism is not so much a result of an increase in concern for animal welfare, as it is about the rapidly declining health of the environment.
What with our plastic-ridden oceans and endangered marine-life, the earth’s eco-system is fast approaching an irreversible imbalance. Our natural resources are nearing depletion too, with the dwindling of fossil fuels and destruction of the Amazon rainforests.
Then there is the air pollution, the overflowing landfills, the toxic chemical residues and a host of other significantly detrimental problems – the most urgent of which is the climate change (and melting polar ice caps). Although the impact of these issues will have a gradual onset, if we do not change our ways before the so-called ‘tipping point,’ scientists have pretty much predicted mass extinction.
The way in which this tipping point will manifest is currently unclear, but evidence suggests an increase in natural disasters and rising sea levels. The main issue is our greenhouse gas emissions, half of which are attributed to the meat and dairy industries.
In a society dominated by meat-eaters, veganism is a sensitive and somewhat controversial subject. As a minority lifestyle, plant-based diets are shrouded in wide-spread scepticism, and even general scorn. Unlike the unspoken delicacy of religion and politics, when a vegan declares their status, they are left at the mercy of their carnivorous counterparts.
Witty comments such as “Save a cow. Eat a vegan.” or “I killed this cow because it was eating your food,” are commonplace in social settings where meat is eaten. The irony of this flippant disregard for the vegan lifestyle is that plant-based living holds the key to the future of our planet.
According to a 2016 study published by the University of Oxford, a global transition to veganism could “save 8 million human lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion.”
The verdict is out, and yet vegans are persistently met with a slew of jeering remarks and comical memes. However, with modern science confirming that veganism provides a solution to the impending tipping point, these jokes are fast becoming as redundant as meat-eating itself.
Given the sevenfold increase in veganism between 2014 and 2019, it seems likely that the meat industry is responsible for this mainstream mentality. The rising trend has threatened the profits of agricultural powerhouses, and consumers have been led to believe that humans cannot function optimally without meat.
For every statistic that illuminates the benefits of veganism (in terms of both health and the environment) an opposing theory has arisen and gone viral. The most pervasive of the ‘fake news’ to surface, advocates that veganism is more harmful to the environment than an omnivorous, flexitarian or vegetarian diet.
Top Vegan Myth Debunked
The main argument of this environmental myth is that the import of vegan foods causes more carbon emissions than a diet based on animal products. Additionally, some have argued that the increased manufacture of vegan processed foods, has added further pressure to our planet’s dwindling resources.
While these points may have elements of truth to them, the sheer number of variables to this theory makes it unreliable at best. In reality, this myth is based on the assumption that all vegans (comprising only 1.16 percent of the UK population), are consuming imported and processed foods on a regular basis.
However, the roots of this particular urban-legend run deep, with further arguments postulating that even fields of soy pose a threat to our planet’s health. While it is true that anything farmed with chemicals is toxic to the ecosystem, soy is mainly cultivated by the meat industry to feed livestock.
In fact, by the time you have finished reading this article, 200 football fields-worth of the Amazon rainforest will have been destroyed for this exact purpose. This directly opposes the theories of Isabella Tree (author of Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm), who wrote an article suggesting that “Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing.”
According to Joseph Poore (a student of the Environmental Research Doctoral Training Partnership at Oxford University) ‘sustainable’ production methods such as these, are not beneficial to the environment at all. He further explains this in the statement “Converting grass into (meat) is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions.”
Poore’s comment is based on his five year investigation into sustainable dairy and meat production. When asked about the environmental impact of veganism, Poore commented “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car, which would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Poore’s statements were confirmed as far back as 2016, with the publication of a comprehensive research paper conducted by the University of Oxford. The study examined 90 percent of all foodstuffs, including a total of forty agricultural products.
Researchers analysed data from approximately 40,000 farms in 119 countries, to illuminate the effects of farming and food production on the environment. The investigation projected that by the year 5050, food-related greenhouse gasses would account for 50 percent of the total emissions on a global scale.
Veganism is Key to the Future of the Environment
The study additionally indicated the long term benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets in terms of reduced emissions. Projections revealed that a vegetarian diet could reduce greenhouse gas by 63 percent, while a vegan diet could have a 70 percent impact. In short, the study found that veganism is the “single biggest way” to reduce our carbon footprints.
If the entire population switched to a vegan lifestyle, the use of agricultural land could be reduced by 75 percent on a global scale. This would serve not only to radically lower greenhouse gas emissions, but contribute to returning balance to the eco-system, thus preventing further wildlife extinctions. An extract from the abstract of this extensive paper states “Recent analyses have highlighted the likely dual health and environmental benefits of reducing the fraction of animal-sourced foods in our diets.”
Dr Marco Springmann, who spearheaded the study commented, “We do not expect everybody to become vegan, but climate change impacts of the food system will be hard to tackle and likely require more than just technological changes.
Adopting healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets can be a large step in the right direction. The size of the projected benefits should encourage individuals, industry, and policy makers to act decisively to make sure that what we eat preserves our environment and our health.”
While transportation (including cars, airplanes, trains and ships) accounts for 13 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, animals and animal by-products are currently responsible for 51 percent of emissions per year. This is the equivalent of 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide, which has a significant negative impact on climate change.
The Vegan Lifestyle is Healthy, Affordable and Environmentally Sustainable
Another pervasive myth about veganism, is the idea that it is both expensive and nutritionally unsound. According to the Oxford study (titled: Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change co-benefits of dietary change) “We find that the monetised value of the improvements in health would be comparable with, or exceed, the value of the environmental benefits although the exact valuation method used considerably affects the estimated amounts.”
Unfortunately, many people are put off veganism due to the misunderstood expense factor, when in reality a plant-based lifestyle is often more affordable than a diet which includes regular meat consumption. The determining factor of both health and finance lies in the choice between vegan-processed products versus plant-based whole foods. This choice additionally influences the amount of food packaging generated from a vegan lifestyle.
When it comes to physical health, macronutrients are important in any diet. Calcium and protein are easily acquired through a balanced intake of vegan whole foods. When it comes to protein and athletic performance, there are numerous body builders and athletes who function at an optimal level on a vegan diet.
However, vegans need to supplement with vitamin B12 and the DHA/EPA components of omega 3 fatty acids. Although nuts and seeds contain the ALA from omega-3, the DHA/EPA elements can only be sourced from seaweed or algae. On the whole, this minor supplementation is still more affordable than diets which include a wide variety of meats.
A vegan diet is extremely healthy, and research has revealed that veganism has the capacity to promote both longevity and holistic well-being. All in all, there is simply no hard evidence to suggest that veganism is unhealthy or overly expensive.
As with all diets there are naturally high-end options, and due to the link between veganism and health, a number of vegans choose to splash out on nutritionally-dense superfoods. However basic food sources (eaten by those living in abject poverty) are generally vegan.
Bread, rice, grains, nuts, fruits, seeds and vegetables are all affordable vegan options. Statistically, if the world went vegan it would reduce global mortality rates by approximately 10 percent, and additionally save trillions of dollars in healthcare.
Of course, this statistic is based on the assumption that we will not destroy the world to the point of mass extinction. According to Richard Oppenlander (author of Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work), the shocking reality is that the agricultural industry will cause us to exceed our CO2e limit by as soon as 2030.
The Future of the Planet Hangs in the Balance
Apart from the billions of animals that are needlessly killed each year, if we do not reduce our livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions, the climate will rise. According to NASA, the latest estimates have revealed that “In the absence of major action to reduce emissions, global temperature is on track to rise by an average of 6 °C.”
It is unclear at this stage as to whether we will be able to prevent the disastrous tipping point that would spark a new era on earth. While recycling and reducing transportation will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, on the whole it is not enough. Peter Singer (Australian Moral Philosopher) says it best, in his harsh-but-accurate comment, “We are, quite literally gambling with the future of our planet – for the sake of hamburgers.”
The good news is that by 2025, vegans and vegetarians are predicted to represent a quarter of the British population, while flexitarians will account for 50 percent of UK consumers. The percentage of vegans in the world is on the rise, but the critical question is whether the oceans will rise faster.
While Millennials and Gen Z are leading the way towards a greener future, veganism is so much more than a passing trend (or attempt to take the moral high ground). The only way we can hope to save our planet is to take the bull by the horns, and accept that veganism is an opportunity to make a positive difference. It’s up to us what happens next, and even small changes to our lifestyles (such as becoming flexitarian) will contribute to the health of our planet. Maybe we will be able to have our cake and eat it too…