Hands up who’s seen ‘The Game Changers’ documentary on Netflix.
Keep them up if it made you want to go Vegan.
If Patrik Baboumiancan can maintain enough strength and energy to carry 555kg (approximately the weight of a horse!) over a distance of 33 feet without a single piece of meat passing his lips in over fifteen years, how hard can it be? (The veganism thing, not lifting the horse!) Well, with an in-house nutritionist following you around all day telling you what you can and cannot eat, not very. For those of us without the budget for a private chef it’s little more tricky. Vitamin B12, crucial for energy and cell health, is found most commonly in meat, certain shellfish and dairy products, with very few vegan friendly sources. The same goes for Iron and Calcium which, although found in many nuts, pulses, fruits and vegetables is hard to consume in the recommended quantities without ploughing through a bowl of spinach every hour! This is leading to an increase in vitamin deficiencies amongst those following a plant-based diet, unless additional supplementation is incorporated. However that’s not to say that omnivores are automatically overflowing with the stuff, in fact the WHO estimate that around 30% of the world’s population are deficient in iron, across both industrialised and developing countries, with a lack of understanding around food nutrition leading people to think they have a healthier diet than they really do. So if you can’t distinguish between a vegan or omnivorous diet based on health, is one at least more sustainable than the other? Let’s find out.
People making the switch to a plant-based lifestyle do so primarily for one of two reasons; animal welfare or to reduce their environmental impact. The belief that farming, and in particular the meat industry is having a hugely negative affect on the environment and driving climate change is seeing more and more people say no to their Sunday Roast and opting for beans over a burger. But is Veganism really the sustainable alternative people think it is?
According to a study done in 2016 by US researchers, perhaps not. Looking at the variety of available farmland that is suitable for food production, the study concluded that Veganism was in fact the fifth most environmentally friendly diet, one place behind a diet that incorporates meat. How can that be you might ask? Well, simply put not all farmland is suitable for growing crops. Flooding, terrain, soil type and climate all affect whether a field is suitable for arable farming, and where crops won’t grow, animal grazing becomes the only viable way to produce food. This can become a vital lifeline in communities where large quantities of imported foods aren’t available to fill the gaps left behind by failed crops, such as lower GDP areas like Sub Saharan Africa. The study determined that the most environmentally friendly diet that maximises the ratio of land use to food production is in fact dairy friendly vegetarian. So if you want to save the planet then the milky latte can stay, but I’m afraid the bacon sandwich is out!
Even taking into account the fact that the UK imports much of what replaces meat in a vegan diet, such as lentils, beans and nuts from places like Brazil, Canada and the US, it is still estimated that a UK vegan will emit around 1055kg of CO2 emissions a year, approximately half that of a meat eater. However, is it possible that eating meat can actually save the planet? With Regenerative Agriculture, the answer could well be (shhh) yes.
If agriculture is seen as one of the biggest contributors to climate change, then does that not also place it in the perfect place to tackle it too? 37% of the Earth’s land surface is dedicated to agriculture, so changing the way we farm has the ability to have a huge impact on our planet. Regenerative Agriculture, seen as the future of farming utilises practices that seek to mimic nature, such as no-till farming (otherwise known as direct drilling) to protect soil structure, removing the use of synthetic chemicals to boost production, crop rotation, water harvesting and well managed grazing. Ultimately these all work to improve and revitalise soil health, water quality, vegetation, animal systems and biodiversity. It helps make our crops more resilient to disease and is improving the soil’s ability to store carbon, an important resource as we attempt to tackle climate change.
So where does meat farming come in to this? As previously mentioned, in many cases grazing animals is the only way to produce food on otherwise unsuitable land but it also plays an important role in maintaining biodiversity. By grazing animals we are maintaining grassland that might otherwise be turned over for commercial use and that is in turn providing habitats for other wildlife. It also provides greater flood protection than arable land, as it has a greater capacity to soak up water, thus providing better protection to surrounding land in years with heavy rain fall. Particularly important as growing population numbers are forcing us to build on at risk land. But cows produce methane which equals climate change right?
Before labelling the meat industry (and in particular cattle) as the environmental bad guy, it is important to realise that whilst ruminants do produce methane, in fact the carbon in that methane is recycled. Grazing animals cannot add more carbon to the atmosphere than the plants they consume remove via photosynthesis, so they’re just maintaining levels. Meanwhile fossil fuels, which are being used to ship food, people and goods all around the world at an increasing rate are responsible for around one third more methane than the animal industry, whilst also emitting added carbon into the atmosphere. So whilst many of us could stand to reduce our meat intake a little, it wouldn’t hurt to examine our reliance on fossil fuels a little more closely either.
If eating meat supports beneficial farming practices, but being vegan emits less CO2 than what’s the answer? Well perhaps it can be found in the Planetary Health Diet, the first science-based diet that aims to target both the poor nutrition that affects billions worldwide, whilst simultaneously tackling climate change. The diet aims to globally cut red meat and sugar consumption by half, double our intake of fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts, whilst maximising food production, improve farming practices, and tackle nutritional extremes at both ends of the spectrum. The largely plant based diet, which allows for one beef burger sized portion of meat and two servings of fish a week, with small amounts of milk, cheese, butter and eggs could save 11 million people a year from deaths related to an unhealthy diet. It also aims to tackle another global problem, food waste.
1.6 billion tonnes of food is thrown away globally each year, and that number is only increasing. Ending up in landfill, without the proper conditions for decomposition, this rotting food produces its own climate affecting array of gases, adding on to whatever went in to getting it on the shelf, into our homes and eventually into our rubbish bins. If it even makes it that far; consumer preferences for curved bananas and straight carrots sees vast quantities of produce not even make it off the farms, instead heading straight to landfill or into animal feed. So, for the sake of the planet it’s about time we embraced the ‘imperfect’ because if you’re dicing a carrot anyway, does it really matter what shape it was to start with? (Check out OddBox if your in London).
Regardless of whether it’s the main thing on your plate or the side to something else, we should all be eating more local fruit and vegetables. You can visit your local farmers market or just simply buy British in the supermarket, either way you’re helping to reduce food miles and consequently emissions, getting fresher and more nutrient dense produce and investing in the local economy, with the added benefit of eating more seasonally and gaining a greater connection to the food on your plate. If you want to go really local you can have a go at growing your own, and the best part is you don’t need an allotment or a garden bigger than most flats in London to get started, all you need is a windowsill. Pinterest is full of ideas for small space gardening, from window boxes to container vegetable patches. You can even regrow things using your food scraps, from sticks of celery in just a few weeks to pineapples if you’re feeling more ambitious (and patient!)
Ultimately it must be recognised that our ability to choose what we eat is an incredible privilege and one that shouldn’t be taken for granted. You can read every scientific paper and article under the sun advocating for this diet over that one but really it’s up to you to decide how much, if any meat you want to consume and as long as you’re getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals to support a healthy body and you feel good, then who are we to judge?
Looking to add a few more plants to your diet? How about these highly rated recipes to get you started…
Start your day off right with a smoothie packed full of tropical citrus and a handful of spinach for good measure from Jen Hansard of simplegreensmoothies.com
These Vegan Blueberry Pancakes, from the award-winning food blog acouplecooks.com make the perfect weekend brunch option (or mid-week breakfast if you’re feeling extra indulgent!)
Looking for a quick, delicious and healthy lunch option easily made omnivore, vegetarian or vegan friendly? Look no further than pinchofyum.com’s Green Goddess Quinoa Summer Salad
Take your taste buds on holiday and knock up an easy Vegan Fried Rice for dinner from the talented people behind minimalistbaker.com
Every good day ends with dessert, and every bad day can be remedied with a delicious pudding agreed? Satisfy your sweet-tooth whatever kind of day you’re having with nourishingamy.com’s easy Vegan Rocky Road. Good luck not finishing it in one sitting!
Written by Hannah Beazley, a freelance writer and illustrator with a passion for sustainability.