Saving the world: is veganism the answer?

Let’s face it, we’re all confused. Over the last few years, we’ve had polarized articles thrown left, right and centre with attention-grabbing headlines such as vegans causing droughts by drinking too much almond milk and cows destroying the planet one fart at a time. It can feel impossible to find a logical conclusion when the topic is steeped in the murkiness of pseudoscience.

Cow behind wire fence
Cows have high methane content in their farts which is a potent greenhouse gas. Image: Albert Bridge

Whether you like it or not, veganism has gained relentless momentum in recent years. #Vegan has more than 73 million posts listed on Instagram and it’s now estimated that there are well over 3.5 million vegans in the U.K alone, compared with just 500,000 in 2016. This January saw 14,000 people sign up to ‘Veganuary’, an initiative set up to inspire people to try veganism for the month of January, in just one day.

Basket of vegetables
Vegans claim to have a nutritious, ethical and sustainable diet. Image: Max pixel

Without stepping into the dangerous territory surrounding the morality of producing meat for consumption, vegans argue three main reasons for living a life free of animal products; animal welfare, human health and environmental sustainability.

Our current model of food production is undeniably unsustainable. Carnivores, vegans and everything in between can at least agree on that. As demand for cheap meat increases, the expansion of agricultural land is causing havoc for the biodiversity in our forests, rivers and oceans. Meat production contributes to deforestation, soil erosion, chemical change caused by fertilisers and pesticides, marine pollution zones, antibiotic resistance and what is being called the “sixth mass extinction”.

Field of wheat
Image: Soy farm in Brazil, the majority of which will be turned into animal feed. Maurilio Cheli

In the largest analysis to date, scientists studied 40,000 farms in 119 countries covering 40 food products representing 90% of all food that is eaten. They concluded that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses 83% of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2014, a study published in the journal Climatic Change found that eating a high-meat diet had a cost of 7.2kg of CO2 emissions per day, compared with 3.8 for vegetarians and a considerably less 2.9kg for vegans.

Carbon footprint (kg CO2e per Kg product) of ruminants (red) and other types of food (blue). Source: E. Verso, Stanford University

Scientists went as far to say that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”  

But, are all meats as bad as each other? You can see for yourself by going to the BBC’s Climate Change Food Calculator. It shows beef to have the highest carbon footprint, averaging nearly 7.5kg of greenhouse gas emissions per serving, followed by lamb with 4.5kg. A single tofu serving, in contrast, produces less than 0.5kg. You do the math.

Lambs in sunlight
Lambs have the second largest carbon footprint, after cows. Image: Roger Davies

But, is it as clear cut as it seems? Is veganism the green dream it claims to be or is there an answer for environmentally-conflicted meat lovers?

Instagram is a plenty with avocado toast and buddha bowls with the hashtag #vegan and it seems that imported foods are a staple for many vegans.  Not only do these foods have a high transportation carbon footprint - especially air-freighted - but they also have issues surrounding the sustainability and morality of the farming practice. For example, avocados have become so lucrative that they have been associated with illegal deforestation and drug cartels in Mexico whilst the rising demand for quinoa has driven the price up so much that Bolivian communities who have grown and eaten it for over 7,000 years are no longer able to afford it. 

Men farming quinoa
Quinoa, once a staple food for many South Americans for thousands of years, is now become so expensive due to Western demand that many, including those who do the farming, are unable to afford it. Image: Michael Hermann.

Farmers and scientists argue that proper management of grazing animals can actually counter climate chaos. It’s argued that holistically managed livestock can restore soils, increase biodiversity and sequester carbon.

Environmentalist, Charlie Burrell and author and wife, Isabella Tree run Knepp, a 3,500-acre estate that was once intensively farmed but now has undergone a successful pioneering rewilding project using grazing animals as the drivers of habitat creation. Along with water restoration and a “hands-off” approach, the project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife, suggesting these belching ruminants can actually play a positive role in sustainable agriculture.

English Longhorn cow in field
English Longhorn cattle have played a large role in the success of Knepp's rewilding project. Image: Knepp Castle Estate 

Charlie and Isabella’s English Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs and fallow deer live outside year round, grazing freely or guided, without the need for supplementary feeding or need for antibiotics. Their trample stimulates vegetation in different ways which, in turn, promotes the biodiversity of other species including small mammals and birds. Not only this, but as they aren’t dosed with antibiotics their dung feeds earthworms, bacteria, fungi and invertebrates such as dung beetles which pull the manure down into the earth, returning nutrients to the soil and accelerating soil restoration. Furthermore, methane emissions are a large reason as to why intensive meat production is so unsustainable, however, these are much lower in biodiversity pasture with wild plants like angelica, shepherd’s purse and bird’s foot trefoil.

Pond in clearing, cow and pig grazing
Charlie and Isabella's rewilding project has seen massive success which they pin largely to free-roaming grazing cattle. Image: Knepp Safaris

Although Charlie and Isabella’s project has been a tremendous success and we can certainly learn some valuable lessons from the way they rear meat, it's difficult to see how this method of farming will feed the world’s insatiable want for meat at current demand. Not only this, but the premium price point of meat reared this way is financially unattainable for most UK families, let alone those in other parts of the world. There is something missing if living sustainably means your food bill doubles.

Cow eating grass
Grass-fed, grazing ruminants might be the answer to sustainable meat farming, but this comes at a price. Image: Andre Wilms, Getty Images

According the the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the problems surrounding intensive meat production will only be exacerbated as it’s predicted humans will consume 500 billion kgs of meat and 1.1 trillion litres of dairy per year. Something needs to change and factory farming is something we should all be campaigning against, carnivore or vegan.

The crux is, changing our diets to reduce our meat intake undoubtedly makes a big difference to our personal environmental footprint, from reducing deforestation to reducing chemical pollution and ocean dead zones. However, veganism is not a get-out-of-climate-change-free card and you can still have a large carbon footprint eating air-freighted foods. It starts with buying less (if any) better quality, grass-fed meat and locally sourced low waste produce like local veg boxes from Riverford and pulses and grains grown in the UK. You can buy these from Hodmedod farm.

Grain thresher
Hodmedod is a company that works with British farmers to produce locally grown pulses. Image: Nick Saltmarsh 

Perhaps you might try a Meatless Monday once a month or perhaps you will stretch to full veganism. But, please remember it’s not just a “diet”, it’s a lifestyle you want to sustain and one that needs to compliment your life, not hinder it. Although veganism can appear absolutist with no room for flexibility or error, you don’t need to choose a ‘side’ as most people believe. If we are to save the planet from ecological calamity we have got to stop viewing it this way.

With so many environmental issues seemingly out of your control, it is well within our grasp to make better food choices and vote for the future that we want.

Beef factory farm from above
Image: Peter Beltra 

For tips on vegan living go to:

www.veganuary.org

www.deliciouslyella.com

www.thehappypear.ie

www.minimalistbaker.com

www.peasoupeats.com